Our View: A Crisis In Housing

Opinion

In rebuffing the Orleans Select Board's request that it bond $1 million for the 107 Main St. housing development, the community preservation committee has its priorities wrong. The move could also endanger the project or increase its cost to taxpayers.

The Housing Assistance Corporation, the only respondent to the town's request for proposals to develop the former Masonic Lodge property into affordable housing, needs a $1,876,624 funding commitment from the town for its share of the $5.9 million development in order to demonstrate in grant applications that the community is behind the project. The affordable housing trust fund is putting up $876,624, and the select board decided the best source for the remaining $1 million is community preservation funds. Town finance officials backed that decision, but the CPC rejected the request last week by a 4-3 vote.

The select board will decide this week whether to borrow the $1 million through property taxes, which will require a two-thirds vote at the Oct. 25 special town meeting and a Proposition 2½ exemption at the Nov. 2 special election, or tap into a line of credit available to the affordable housing trust. Both are less desirable than using community preservation funds; using the credit line would tie up half of the $2 million available to the trust, and getting a two-thirds majority vote at town meeting is always never a sure thing. And it would raise the tax rate.

The CPC has a steady revenue stream via the 3 percent property tax surcharge that will be levied with or without dedicating $1 million to the 107 Main St. project. Approximately $72,000 a year would be needed to service the debt starting a year from now. Community preservation revenue totaled more than $1,358,000 this year; at least 10 percent must be used in each of four categories, one of which is affordable housing. While there are always competing projects seeking the CPA funding, few would argue that right now, the priority for Orleans – and other area towns – should be housing. The lack of affordable rentals and homeownership opportunities is hobbling businesses, dropping school enrollment and limiting diversity. The CPC has devoted $500,000 annually to the trust, but dropped the figure to $300,000 this year due to its also providing $2 million for the Pennrose 62-unit housing development at the former Cape Cod Five operations center. Laudable, but the group could easily direct more money toward housing; there's no point in sitting on money “just in case” another project comes up. It's needed now for the 107 Main St. project, whose 14 units would house people earning 80 percent of the area median income, a demographic that other recent projects, including the Pennrose development, fail to serve: professionals, firefighters, teachers and others who can't afford to live in Orleans now but earn too much to qualify for low-income housing.

Between 2006 and 2019, the CPC approved $8,255,690 in open space purchase compared to $2,736,549 for community housing, according to the 2020 Community Preservation Plan. The Pennrose contribution upped that total, but as Select Board member Mark Mathison said at last week's CPC meeting, “We don't have a crisis in open space in Orleans, we have a crisis in housing.” For the benefit of the community, the CPC should keep this in mind going forward.