Stuck In The Middle: Police, Fire, School Officials Face Housing Challenges

By: Ryan Bray

Topics: Police, Fire And Harbormaster News , Orleans news , Affordable housing

Ben Nickerson and Gabby Parker of the Orleans Fire Department can speak first-hand to the challenges police, fire and school officials have finding housing on the Lower Cape. RYAN BRAY PHOTO

Looking back, Scott MacDonald realizes how fortunate he was to have bought his home in Brewster in 1999.

"We paid just under $180,000 for that home, and I'll tell you, we worked really hard," said MacDonald, Orleans' chief of police. "We're very proud we were able to pay our mortgage and raise a wonderful family there."

But the cost of housing has reached unprecedented heights on the Cape, and many police officers, firefighters, teachers and other workers today aren't as lucky.

Much is made in Cape communities about the need for affordable housing. But with the skyrocketing cost of housing in recent years, attention is also being turned to what's being called the "missing middle," residents who earn too much to qualify for affordable housing but for whom finding and affording market rate housing is a struggle.

"The cost of housing has gone up two and a half times, but the salaries haven't gone up two and a half times," said Orleans Fire Chief Geof Deering, who bought his home in Brewster in 2002.

According to Redfin.com, the average cost of a single family home in Barnstable County is $715,000, an increase of almost 16 percent since 2021. On average, a listed home stays on the market for nine days, according to Redfin.

All of this makes finding housing difficult for members of the region's working class. In Orleans, the starting salary for a police officer is approximately $61,000. But housing, both to own and rent, is scarce and oftentimes unaffordable. According to Orleans Police Sgt. Patrick Cronin, some department members recently came close to sleeping on the couches of their fellow officers.

"That's the reality of it, and it's sad," he said. "This is a rewarding career, but it's difficult all across the country. On Cape Cod it's even more difficult."

And the problem isn't relegated to the department's newest members, said Cronin, a 12-year veteran of the department who first moved to Yarmouth in 2011 and has rented in Brewster for the past five years.

"I'm a single guy," he said. "I can't afford a house down here."

The police department has the flexibility to hire from off-Cape. That's not the case for members of the fire department, who as part of their contract with the town have to live within a seven-mile radius of the fire station. That includes Orleans, Eastham, parts of Harwich and Chatham and most of Brewster.

"Our circle is small, and it's an expensive circle," said Firefighter Paramedic Ben Nickerson, who has been with the Orleans Fire Department for two and a half years.

Nickerson, 30, recently purchased a home with his girlfriend in Orleans that they'd been renting for the past three years. They bought the home for about $599,000 before it went on the market.

A 14th generation Orleans resident, Nickerson said he's happy to have found a house in his hometown, and he realizes he's among the lucky ones.

"To me, growing up, I always thought of firefighting as a good career," he said. "You make good money, can afford a house, not a problem. Now the market value is so high."

He added, "It's sad being a kid who grew up here trying to do it. It's disheartening at times."

Gabby Parker, 27, one of the fire department's newest hires, has seen first-hand just how difficult finding housing can be. She's rented in the past, and currently lives at home with her family in Harwich, right on the edge of the radius.

Parker comes from a long line of firefighters and public servants, and she's proud to fall in with the family tradition. A former fire dispatcher, she recently completed her training at the Bridgewater Fire Academy and also paid her own way through paramedic school. When not working for the department, she also works as a paramedic in the emergency room at Cape Cod Hospital.

But the cost of furthering her training and education, combined with the exorbitant cost and limited availability of housing, doesn't leave her with a lot of hope that she'll be able to buy a home anytime soon, she said.

"I can't afford to," she said. "Between the money I'm making and everything else I have to pay for, school loans and everything, it's very difficult."

The police and fire unions are currently in contract negotiations with the town, and Deering said a wider housing radius has been discussed for the fire department.

For MacDonald and Deering, the continued housing crunch raises concerns in terms of department stability. Police and fire recruits who complete their training are seen as attractive candidates by other departments, MacDonald said. If they can't find housing, they could leave for other departments, some of which offer considerably higher salaries than in Orleans.

Deering said a new firefighter in Orleans earns between $56,000 and $60,000 a year. But other departments such as Hyannis offer their members about $90,000 to start, he said.

"It's a pretty common discussion in our [fire] house, who is getting paid what and where," he said.

Both MacDonald and Deering estimate that police and fire personnel are more likely to leave their departments if they can't solidify their housing situation within three to five years. But Nickerson and Parker both say they're happy in Orleans, and haven't considered leaving.

"I never looked elsewhere," Nickerson said. "I've always wanted to stay here, but it could have come down to 'I can't afford to live here. As much as I want to, I can't. I have to go somewhere else.' That's a real possibility for a lot of people."

"You want to be dedicated to a great department, but it's hard not to be able to live where you want to live," Parker said.

Meanwhile, retaining new hires is especially important for both departments as more police and fire officials ready themselves for retirement. MacDonald estimated that the police department has lost 200 years worth of policing experience from retirements over the past three years. New hires need to stay with and advance through the department in order to replace that experience, he said.

For the police department, the prospect of losing employees is even more concerning in the face of dwindling applications for open positions, something MacDonald said can in part be attributed to the region's housing problem.

"We are not attracting the candidates we were attracting in years past," he said. "Ten years ago, if we had one opening, we'd get roughly 60 to 70 applicants. Our last go around I think we had 10, and some of them didn't meet the minimum qualifications."

There's additional concern that officers and firefighters are overworking themselves to try and keep up with the increased cost of housing, as well as other expenses such as food and gas. Deering said it's not uncommon for his members to put in 80-hour weeks.

"I have a number of people who don't miss much overtime," Deering said. "They have kids and families, but it's what they have to do to sustain."

"You can see people are burnt out, just on their appearance," Cronin said. "But like I said, these guys feel like they need to do it just to get by."

What the Cape needs, MacDonald and Deering say, is more diversified housing options including condominiums and apartments. The Nauset Regional School Committee has begun undertaking discussions about how to create more housing for new teachers and staff that will need to be hired into the district in the coming years. The group plans to form an advisory committee that will work with housing officials in the four Nauset towns to try and come up with solutions for creating the type of workforce housing the district needs.

Chris Easley, who chairs the regional school committee, suggested those solutions could take any number of forms. Towns could work to earmark a portion of their future housing units for school staff, or the district could explore the possibility of funding the creation of its own employee housing.

Whether or not those plans pan out, and if the same approaches can be employed for police and fire personnel, remains to be seen. But MacDonald said he's encouraged by town officials' and volunteers' commitment at the local level toward finding a solution.

"If we don't come up with a solution soon, the bottom is going to drop out," MacDonald said. "It's a significant issue."

Email Ryan Bray at ryan@capecodchronicle.com