Partnership: Don’t Cut CHOP Houses From Affordable Housing Stock

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Housing and homelessness

The CHOP neighborhood off Stony Hill Road.  TIM WOOD PHOTO

CHATHAM — For nearly four decades, the houses in the Chatham Housing Opportunity Program, or CHOP, have been home to a rare breed of residents: working class families with children. But with affordability protections due to expire in 2028, officials are worried about the loss of badly needed workforce housing units – and the young families that need them.

CHOP was Chatham’s first affordable housing neighborhood when it opened in September 1988; its 32 two- and three-bedroom houses were each sold for between $64,000 and $100,000, when similar homes were valued at around $120,000. The town provided the land for the neighborhood, which was built by a Maine-based developer under the town’s first 40B comprehensive permit.

In a bid to keep the homes affordable for some time, each property was sold with a 40-year deed restriction. Under the language, each property can be resold only to income-qualified buyers and only at a discounted rate. The maximum sale price is discounted by a percentage of the current appraised value, the same percentage over the market price the homes were discounted to when originally sold, generally between 25 and 35 percent.

When those deed restrictions expire and owners have fulfilled their obligation to keep their property affordable, they are free to sell at market rates, likely over $600,000. Meeting last week, the town’s community housing partnership lamented the potential loss of the affordable units at a time when the town is struggling to create more attainable housing stock.

Of the 32 homes in the CHOP neighborhood, only 21 are still bound by deed restrictions. Some homeowners found loopholes in the deed riders, while in other cases, the state – which had a set time limit to find qualified buyers when a homeowner wanted to sell – failed to take action after receiving notification of intent to sell. Eleven homes were eventually lost and most were sold on the open market.

“We can’t get those back,” partnership chair Karolyn McClelland said. Unless the town finds a way to protect the remaining units, the neighborhood will eventually revert to market-rate housing reflecting the current sky-high sales prices.

“Do we really want to lose those properties? That’s the question before us,” McClelland told her committee.

Some of the homes with existing deed restrictions have been sold and new deed restrictions added that keep them affordable in perpetuity rather than being linked to a specific timeframe, like the original restrictions.

Housing advocates should explore various options to either purchase the CHOP homes if and when they become available, or even more uniquely, to offer a financial payment to current owners who are willing to accept a new deed restriction that keeps the property affordable in perpetuity. McClelland said the partnership should continue exploring its options to “see what the town has an interest in doing, how much they’re willing to invest to recapture these homes.”

While the town is currently planning three potential housing developments – one on Meetinghouse Road in South Chatham, one at the Buckley property in West Chatham and one near Monomoy Middle School on Stony Hill Road – “there’s only so many units that are going to be built on these,” McClelland said. “We need to pursue everything.” The likelihood of the town creating a new development the size of the CHOP neighborhood is small, she noted.

“Here we already have a neighborhood, we don’t have to go to town meeting to get the land, we don’t have to deal with abutters, we don’t have to re-zone, we don’t have to build,” McClelland said.

The CHOP neighborhood has been an important part of the town since it was created, added partnership member and Chatham Housing Authority Executive Director Tracy Cannon.

“This is a neighborhood that’s been so vital and so important,” she said. Her own children had friends in the development, and the neighborhood is a destination for children from all over town on Halloween, when families decorate their yards and welcome trick-or-treaters with huge amounts of candy. In a community with few family-friendly neighborhoods, the CHOP development is unique – thanks to those deed restrictions.

“If we let them expire, it just goes away,” she said.

“This has been a wonderful neighborhood for our community for four decades. They’ve been great neighbors; they’ve really been part of the community,” McClelland said. Some people have criticized current owners for considering selling at market rate, saying “that they’re exploiting the system. And they’re not. Their deed restriction has expired,” she said. “They did their 40 years. I don’t want them to be criticized.”

The partnership voted unanimously to recommend that the town’s select board and housing trust explore ways to retain the CHOP homes as a year-round neighborhood, and to seek a mechanism for acquiring homes for year-round occupancy from residents willing to donate, sell at a discounted rate, or provide a deed restriction.