Report, Conference Draws Attention To Dire Housing, Employment Markets

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Housing and homelessness , Community Sustainability

“Fifty percent of our workforce is now driving here,” said Alisa Magnotta, CEO of Housing Assistance Corp. “We’re going to have to pay somehow – higher workforce salaries or more housing.” BRONWEN WALSH PHOTO

Imagine this, said Tim Cornwell, keynote speaker at Thursday’s regional housing summit: twice the number of people seated in the Cape Codder’s 400-capacity ballroom no longer could afford to buy a home as first-time homebuyers today because their combined household income is under $200,000.

With the median home price doubling in the last two years, the Cape is losing more than 800 households a year making $100,000 or less, according to Cornwell’s data crunching. Nearly 50 percent of those who now work on-Cape commute from another county, driving 50 miles or more. That’s a 20 percent increase since the pandemic.

That is unsustainable, said Cornwell, the author of a new report analyzing the economic effect of the Cape’s housing crisis on the local workforce.

“All growth is happening at the top of the scale, and lower-income people are being displaced. Wage stagnation among service/wage/healthcare employees has become a key economic trend in Barnstable County,” Cornwell said.

At a conference last Thursday to announce a new partnership, Cape and Islands business leaders, lawmakers and social service agencies rallied to align zoning on a regional basis to favor housing creation. They issued a dire warning about the Cape’s economic sustainability and a call to action: focus on creating more workforce housing.

Lock arms to prevent this crisis from further bulldozing the Cape’s economy and year-round community, Housing to Protect Cape Cod supporters said. Housing is the No. 1 problem here, and that problem is intensifying.

Households making a combined $200,000 are struggling, leading many workers to leave the Cape; hence, small business owners and municipalities are struggling to staff their shops, restaurants, practices and departments, said The Concord Group’s Cornwell, the author of a new report analyzing the effect of the housing crisis on the Cape’s workforce and local businesses.

Twenty years of misguided zoning policy has favored the wealthy, said Senator Julian Cyr, D-Truro. “We’re going to have that conversation on Beacon Hill. But Beacon Hill can’t fix this — that’s up to the people of Cape Cod,” where 82 percent of the land is either already developed or protected open space, and 82 percent of the population are single-family homeowners.

“Focusing on housing is akin to developing a political campaign,” Cyr said. “Politics is how you make change. You’ve got to go grassroots, neighbor to neighbor, and drive more people to town meeting” to vote in favor of housing and housing-friendly zoning.

“Everybody in this room needs to pull together and help resolve Housing,” Cyr said. “Our choices have prioritized the preservation of wealth…at the erosion of who can make it here. This is a problem that has been building for 20 years.”

Thanks to the Association to Preserve Cape Cod’s Andrew Gottlieb and Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce CEO Paul Niedzwiecki’s zeroing-in on tackling declining water quality, the Cape is dealing with wastewater, said Ryan Castle, chief executive officer of the Cape Cod and Islands Association of Realtors. The regional needs to shift that intensity of focus to housing, Castle urged, and increase housing density along the Route 28 corridor’s sewered backbone.

Summit speakers also issued an appeal to drive housing innovation toward resolving the Cape’s worsening housing shortages among what Cornwell called "the missing middle."

Niedzwiecki described how he is pivoting Cape Cod Chamber home marketing strategy from a call for water protection infrastructure to a focus on people and housing.

“Think of it as an economic Swiss Army knife,” Niedzwiecki said. The chamber, Housing Assistance Corporation, the Cape and Islands Association of Realtors, CapeBuilt, and the Homebuilders and Remodelers of Cape Cod, and the Cape’s 15 towns are all partnering to push rezoning for housing density and ADUs.
Suggested solutions included employers’ sharing employees; investing in real estate to house their seasonal employees in dorm-style accommodations; renovating more existing buildings into housing; adding second-story housing above small businesses; and subsidizing down payments, bill-paying hardships and even car repairs for year-round employees.

As part of a business panel, Lisa Oliver, CEO of the Cooperative Bank of Cape Cod, said that less than 5 percent of the bank’s employees used to live off-Cape. Now it’s 15 percent, plus more couch-surfers and people moving back in with parents.

“We’re in the thick of the challenges that come with housing instability,” Oliver said.

“Fifty percent of our workforce is now driving here,” said Alisa Magnotta, CEO of Housing Assistance Corp. “We’re going to have to pay somehow — higher workforce salaries or more housing.”

Stacie Peugh, CEO of YMCA Cape Cod, one of the Cape’s largest childcare providers, employs 180 in the off-season and 250 in summer. The YMCA is licensed to serve 593 children. After state budget reductions, “we lost 77 slots,” Peugh said, “and 349 children are currently enrolled. Pre-COVID, that was 656.”

Peugh said she has has zero staff to fill three new Y locations under construction and 48 vacant positions. The Y is experiencing a “triple trouble” scenario: lack of workers, lack of housing, and children facing mental health problems, she said.

Bill Bogdanovich, CEO of Broad Reach Healthcare in Chatham, whose skilled nursing facilities employ about 300, described his new reality as “a finger in the dyke” experience. Years ago, the company maintained a small emergency loan program.

Today, “we’re approaching 10 percent of staff that we’re helping as landlords,” he said. “Nine-tenths were housing-triggered events. It’s helped us keep people that would otherwise have been gone. Helping people with stable housing could help us have a more stable workforce.”

Up to four stories are now permitted in Provincetown’s commercial district, said Provincetown Select Board member Leslie Sandberg said. She encouraged redeveloping, adding housing units above Main Street small businesses.

Sobering Stats: Same Old, But Worse

Through the data lens, the Cape has seen 0.1 percent net growth every calendar year for 30 yrs, Cornwell said. In Barnstable County, that is actually only 80 new families every calendar year versus 830 households that are being pushed away annually.

“We need to have that ‘backfill,’ a housing market that can support the very people now caring for the Cape’s aging population and teaching our children,” he said.

Yet the Cape continues seeing population loss: because of COVID, Cape lost 11 percent of total employment in 2020 – 11,000 jobs.

“The U.S. got back to peak employment in 2022,” Cornwell said. “On-Cape, that recovery won’t happen until 2026.”

The magnitude of the problem and level of pandemic disruption were reflected in the number of people in the room, Cornwell said. “The nature of doing work has changed drastically. Many of your kids are turning 31, 32, 33 years old” and facing huge challenges as they consider starting families and putting down roots. “We’re talking about your kids, their abilities to live in those communities where they’ve grown up.”

“It should cause alarm bells when millennials and Generation Z can’t make it here,” Cyr said.

The solution to Cape housing “is not a one-trick pony,” Magnotta said at the summit’s close. “Zoning and housing policies are our values in action. We have to be the change we want to see.”

But it’s counterintuitive, she added by phone Friday morning.

“[Single-family homeowners on Cape Cod ] don’t realize that they’re hurting themselves. Constrictive zoning and one-acre lots are not good for the environment and their property values. Neither is true,” Magnotta said.

“Sprawl is really bad for the environment, forcing the workforce to live further and further away. To get people to drive further, you have to pay them more. It’s in their (Cape Codders’) interest to find pockets of smaller housing, closer together.”

“Hopefully something good comes out of this and not just talk,” said Bob Cody, former Hyannis chamber board chairman, checking into the summit before coffee. “It’s time to move forward on some things.”

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