ORLEANS — The consultant retained to answer questions about the potential re-use of the Governor Prence Motel had plenty of her own for town leaders last week.
The select board, affordable housing committee, and affordable housing trust board met Dec. 10 with Judi Barrett, owner and managing director of Barrett Planning Group LLC. “Who’s struggling to stay in Orleans?” she asked. “What kinds of households, age groups? Who’s already left?”
The responses came quickly. Selweect Board Chair Kevin Galligan mentioned a “longstanding family in Orleans. He works in the school system, she works in a medical office. They would have loved to stay in Orleans to raise their daughter, (but) they were in a really tiny rental. (Now) they’re in Brewster. I want to bring them back to Orleans.”
Select board member Mefford Runyon spoke of a conversation with a man who’s the second generation to run a local service business. “He became homeless, even though he has a wife and kids,” he said. “The owner sold the house he was living in and he had to move out, (with) absolutely no chance of replacing that housing. These people are really the lifeblood of our area. If we can’t find a way to let them live here, I think all is lost.”
Trust board member Alexis Mathison, who attended Nauset Regional High School and now, in her 20s, teaches there, said, “I’ve seen so many of my classmates move away. Some have wanted to. Some just don’t have career opportunities down here. There’s no place for us to live. The rental market is so small. Most of us, even if we have a full-time job, are not able to afford (a condo).”
Mathison lives with her father, select board member Mark Mathison, who said that “even people who have a good job down here can’t afford to buy because the market’s gone so high. They don’t qualify for rental assistance because their income is too high, yet even with that income they can’t afford to buy a house here. Our police and fire people can’t afford to live in town, (yet) they’re making good salaries.” He said town leaders have talked about asking the state legislature to move the benchmark for affordable housing up to 120 or 150 percent of area median income.
“The people who struggle to find something to buy, in the majority of cases it’s not because they don’t have enough income to carry a good-sized mortgage but because they don’t have the down payment,” Runyon said. “I’m still waiting for us to figure out some way to address that.” Galligan mentioned a Chatham program in which a portion of rent is escrowed toward a commitment to buy. “It’s a good fit for that community, and really worth exploring here,” he said.
Housing committee member Fran McClennen said she was “alarmed by the number of people 65 and older living alone,” based on a 2017 Orleans housing study. “They’re largely over-housed. If there was an opportunity for them to rent a smaller condo, that would be a house that would come on the market for a family.”
Galligan pointed to the lack of housing for summer workers, especially the European students on visas who “literally get dropped off by the bus without a place to stay.” That prompted Runyon to advocate for “my pet solution – true dormitory-style housing. I think you could pretty much meet all that housing need if you had rules and zoning to allow that, especially with the sewer coming in.” Select board member Andrea Reed recalled that a couple had proposed rehabbing a store as co-working space for the winter and student housing in the summer.
Barrett probed the town’s motives for pursuing affordable housing. Was it just to meet the state benchmark of 10 percent of stock being affordable, thus securing protection from unfriendly Chapter 40B multi-family developments, or was the purpose to address a variety of housing needs?
Studying the potential of the Governor Prence site, said housing committee chair Nancy Renn, is a “golden opportunity. We keep hearing how economics fits into this (regarding levels of ‘affordable’ housing). This is our opportunity to see if we can merge these things and find a pathway for all these concerns.”
“What I’ve learned is that the word ‘affordable’ is a slippery one,” said trust board member Ward Ghory. “A word that I’ve found helpful is ‘attainable.’ It’s really important that we find language to represent these things not as this versus that but as a common objective for all ranges of income.”
(For the record, Orleans has 304 officially-recognized affordable housing units, 25 shy of the 10 percent state goal, according to Planning and Community Development Director George Meservey.)
Of course, the Governor Prence study is not just looking at housing. Under “other compatible uses,” speakers at last week’s meeting mentioned additional community needs: a library, a fire station, a movie theater, recreation, a museum, and an event venue.
Mark Mathison advised against straying from the central idea of housing. “This site is in the center of town in a district that allows greater density,” he said. “It will be hooked up to sewer, next to the bike path, and convenient to a downtown that already has a lot of vacant space. This site begs to be used for housing. I understand questions about some other kind of community facility, open space, parkland. In all fairness, when you look at how much money the town has spent to buy lands as conservation land – we’ve taken 400 acres that could have been 400 individual houses… This is a place that is tailor-made to get housing here… We do a disservice if we start really looking at cutting it up and putting smaller things in there (as well as housing).”
While appreciating the comments from town leaders, Barrett stressed the need for wider community input during the study, which must be completed by the end of January to get a proposal for acquiring the property on the May town meeting agenda. She will circulate a brief survey after the holidays and hold an online community meeting early in January, details to be announced.