'Aggressive' Housing Measures Before Town Meeting Saturday

By: Tim Wood

The Chatham 365 Advocacy Group sponsored these signs to draw attention to the housing issue and to encourage residents to attend Saturday's annual town meeting. TIM WOOD PHOTO

This is the fifth and final story in a series on the ongoing housing crisis.

CHATHAM – Libby Nickerson would love to be able to live in the town where she grew up and where she works. But last fall, the house where she was living, just down the road from her parents, was sold, and she had to leave. Eventually, through word of mouth, she was fortunate to find a place to live in Orleans with a sympathetic landlord.

“They completely understand what it's like to find affordable housing for people to live here year-round,” she said. Although she'd prefer to be in Chatham, she feels lucky to have a place to live. Ideally she'd like to buy a home and settle here, but, she said, “I know that I couldn't possibly right now with the way the market is.”

“I'd love nothing more than to continue the Nickerson generation down here, but the more things change on the Cape the less likely that seems,” she said.

Nickerson's future in Chatham, as well as that of dozens of others, could depend on what happens at Saturday's annual town meeting. An aggressive suite of measures setting the stage for development of affordable and attainable housing will be acted on by voters, ranging from acquisition of land for housing to a real estate transfer tax on home sales of $2 million or more.

Officials were initially hoping to ask voters to purchase two parcels for housing, but a deal on land at 2337 Main St. in South Chatham fell through when the owner withdrew his offer to the town and sold the land to an abutter to preserve as open space.

On Tuesday the select board voted to back the other purchase after an agreement was reached with the Buckley family. The 1533 and 0 Main St. property includes approximately 2.53 acres; the Buckley family asked that a 20,000-square-foot lot containing the main house be carved out of the parcel. To fund the $1,375,000 cost, the select board agreed that half would come from free cash and the other half from the affordable housing trust fund. The fund currently has a balance of $1.7 million, with another $1 million in Community Preservation Act funds proposed to be added at the town meeting.

By splitting the source of funding, the town will have flexibility with the type of housing that can be built on the land. The affordable housing trust funds can only go toward projects for people who earn no more than 100 percent of the area median income (AMI). That figure was $96,600 for a family of four, but Community Development Director Kathleen Donovan said Tuesday that a new AMI for Barnstable County has just come out, lowering the limit to $89,300 for a family of four.

Using free cash for the other half of the purchase allows the town to build half the housing for buyers who fit into the attainable category, which is 200 percent of AMI, which Donovan said is now $178,000 for a family of four.

Select board chair Shareen Davis said housing on the land will be a “nice complement to the West Chatham village” which she hopes will become revitalized with the completion of the West Chatham Roadway Project.

Another town meeting article proposes to designate town land on Middle Road for affordable housing. Although 19 acres are identified, because of topography and wetlands only about 8.2 acres is buildable. The land was originally acquired for expansion of the landfill and is no longer needed for that purpose. Opposition to use of the land has been growing in recent weeks, with signs popping up around town urging voters to reject the article. On a Facebook page dedicated to the issue, a number of residents said they didn't oppose affordable housing but did not want to see the forest around Goose Pond developed.

A petition article asks voters to dedicate the former water department office at 127 Old Harbor Rd., vacant for years, for housing.

All three parcels – Main Street, Middle Road and Old Harbor Road – would under go a feasibility study to identify development hurdles and appropriate types of development – homeownership vs. rental or affordable vs. attainable. The town received a $50,000 Housing Choices Small Town Capital Grant for a feasibility study of the Middle Road property, which is currently underway. A $50,000 community preservation article would cover feasibility studies for the remaining properties, and potentially for others.

Three articles seek voter approval for the select board to file special legislation related to affordable and attainable housing. One would replace the existing affordable housing trust with a new housing trust to address both affordable and attainable housing; the current trust can only deal with affordable housing that is restricted to those earning 100 percent of the area median income. The new trust would also be able to fund attainable housing projects for those earning up to 200 percent of the area median income.

Another home rule petition would establish a property transfer fee of one-half of one percent on real estate sales of $2 million or more, the proceeds of which would go into the housing trust fund. Officials plan to dedicate that revenue stream to attainable housing. A final article would authorize special legislation that would allow Community Preservation Act funds to be used for attainable housing projects, not just for affordable projects as is the case currently.

Finally, four articles appropriate Community Preservation Act funds for various affordable housing-related efforts, including the contribution to the affordable housing trust and the housing feasibility study. Another measure seeks $30,000 for an affordable housing coordinator, a function contracted to the Community Development Partnership since 2018. A CPA contribution of $90,000 is also proposed for Habitat for Humanity Cape Cod's two-home development on George Ryder Road South.

Given these potential investments, select board members said, it's important voters know that there will be a “return” in the sense that whatever housing is built goes toward those who need it most. If the town demonstrates need through demographics and other factors, 70 percent of affordable housing can go toward local residents, a designation that includes not only people who live here already, but also those who work in Chatham or whose children go to school here.

The Chatham 365 Advocacy Group, an outgrowth of the town-sponsored Chatham 365 Task Force, sponsored signs to promote attendance at town meeting and highlight the housing issue. The group also sent out postcards to residents. The group has used social media to drum up interest in town meeting, including enrolling local businesses to provide incentives to folks who show their voter card. The effort is in keeping with the group's mission to promote a “thriving year-round community in Chatham,” said member Brett Tolley.

“Right now we're facing a housing crisis that is one of the biggest barriers to achieving that vision,” he said. “So it's at the top of the list.”

The measures proposed on the warrant aren't enough to stem the housing crisis or possibly even put a dent in it, said Tolley.

“We need to recognize that this problem and this crisis didn't happen overnight,” he said. “It's been happening over the course of decades. Really we need to be looking at solutions happening over decades.”

Davis said the town meeting measures come at a pivotal time for the town, which could potentially turn toward having a more diverse community of working residents.

“I'm excited for what we can be doing for our community,” she said.