On the Cape new homes for workers go begging

INTRO TEXT

sandwich attorney jonathan Fitch doesn’t like the term “workforce housing.” He thinks it’s “gimmicky.” All he and his wife Nancy, who have been active on land-use issues in town since 1970, wanted to do was build “the least expensive new housing” in the area. But town officials and local housing groups persuaded the couple that moderately priced housing could also meet the needs of a particular niche of buyers now being priced out of Cape Cod: year-round workers between the ages of 25 and 35 looking to buy their first home. So, “workforce housing” it was to be.

It may already be too late to attract young buyers.

The result is Brightside Lane, a new neighborhood of two-bedroom townhouse condominiums near Snake Pond. A “friendly” Chapter 40B project (meaning the town went along with, rather than fought, development in excess of local zoning restrictions in the interest of providing affordable housing), Brightside Lane includes 11 units, out of the total 42, that are affordable for buyers earning up to 80 percent of median income in the area. But even the market-rate units are real bargains by Cape standards, with prices ranging from $243,900 to $259,900.

Young buyers should be flocking in, right? Wrong. Since the development went on the market in May, the overwhelming majority of the “lookers” are seniors, according to Fitch. “What’s had me scratch my head is there aren’t even any tire-kickers who fit the profile of the buyers that we were hoping for and whom we were led to believe were out there,” he says.

Municipal employees were offered an advance peek—but there was “absolutely zero response,” Fitch says. He turned marketing over to a broker; as of early September, it had snagged only three agreements on the market rate units, with none of the buyers matching the expected profile. Now Fitch is wondering whether, in terms of providing homeownership opportunities for a middle-income workforce of younger people, it isn’t already too late.

“I don’t know if it’s the market or whether it really is the fact that the people we were designing for aren’t around,” says Fitch.

US Census population estimates for Barnstable County, compiled by the Cape Cod Commission, bear out Fitch’s suspicions, at least in part. The population of 25-to-29-year-olds in the county grew 26 percent between 2000 and 2004, from nearly 9,000 to about 11,000. But the 30-to-34-year-old cohort declined 6 percent, from roughly 12,600 to about 11,800, and the number of 35-to-39-year-olds shrank by 11 percent, from nearly 16,300 to about 14,500.

“I think to some degree the cohort [Fitch] is trying to attract has left Cape Cod,” says Jo Anne Miller Buntich, workforce housing coordinator for Housing Assistance Corp., a Hyannis–based nonprofit, and a former director of Sandwich’s planning and development office.

Seniors, not middle-income workers,
seem interested in Sandwich’s
Brighside Lane condos.
Photograph by Meghan Moore

If so, various Cape initiatives to fill the gap in housing for middle-income households could prove to be too little, too late. While the shortage of housing on the Cape that’s affordable for lower-income families has long been recognized as a problem, the squeeze on middle-income families has come to light more recently, through the job market.

“One day [employers] are not conscious of what employees are facing in housing, and the next day it becomes a management issue,” says HAC executive director Rick Presbrey. Earlier this year, a top prospect for superintendent of the Barnstable public schools balked at home prices and withdrew his candidacy. Cape Cod Five Cents Savings Bank was hard-pressed to find an auditor, and Cape Cod Health Care has had trouble recruiting doctors and other health care professionals. Even HAC has two highly skilled employees who are considering leaving the Cape, Presbrey says.

Anecdotes like these led HAC, the Cape Cod Business Roundtable, mortgage-loan intermediary organization Freddie Mac, and local businesses to convene the region’s first-ever workforce housing summit in April, attracting about 200 business and community leaders. This fall, a summit task force hopes to construct an action plan honed to workforce housing development, public policy issues such as zoning and wastewater treatment, and community education about areas appropriate for growth, such as village centers. Another group plans to study employee housing benefit programs nationwide to determine viable options for Cape businesses.

In part, the workforce-housing push is an attempt to broaden the traditional definition of “affordable housing”—housing affordable for those earning up to 80 percent of median income—in a region where real estate prices are high, driven up by retirees and second-homebuyers, but incomes have not accelerated as quickly. Generally, people at 80 percent to 120 percent of median income are able to find only rental housing they can afford, says Paul Ruchinskas, affordable housing officer for the Cape Cod Commission, the regional planning agency.

Buying a home on the Cape is another matter. The estimated 2006 median family income in Barnstable County, for example, is $66,800. Since 2000, the homebuying power of moderate-income households (80 percent to 100 percent of area median family income) grew by 40 percent, but house prices nearly doubled, according to a Cape Cod Commission study conducted by Development Cycles, an Amherst–based firm. HAC found that, with a 5 percent down payment, it would take an annual income of $121,608 to qualify for the mortgage on a home selling for $350,000, the Mid-Cape median price. But a computer systems professional earning an average Cape Cod salary of $67,756 could only afford a home priced at $221,653. A teacher earning $43,262 could buy a home for no more than $124,500.

‘The situation out here is beyond dire.’

The problem is worst on the Outer Cape. In Truro, where the median price for a single family home is more than $650,000, housing authority chair Susan Kadar is on a “personal crusade” to rally the five neighboring towns to petition Beacon Hill for special legislation to expand Chapter 40B income eligibility from 80 percent to 120 percent of median income in those communities.

“That would at least be an acknowledgment that the situation out here is beyond dire,” says Kadar. “There are nurses, physicians, [and] all kinds of professional and non-professionals who belong in that category of being needy.”

There’s interest in Orleans and Eastham, with warrant articles likely to go before their respective town meetings this fall, but Wellfleet hasn’t yet weighed in. Meanwhile, Provincetown has already been more aggressive than most in creating housing for its resident workforce. In 2004, town officials adopted the goal of reaching the 10 percent threshold of affordable housing units set by Chapter 40B within the next several years, plus 100 additional units, one-third of which would be designated as workforce or housing for middle-income earners and the rest for lower-income households.

But does the Brightside Lane experience indicate that the workforce has already flown the Cape? Buntich, the HAC workforce housing coordinator, doesn’t think so. She says the Fitches ought to work through business owners who might be able to steer them towards potential buyers for a type of housing that doesn’t exist in great numbers anywhere on Cape Cod.

Meet the Author

Gabrielle Gurley

Senior Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

And Fitch himself hasn’t given up. He’s reduced some prices in the nine-unit first phase of the development and hopes he can stick to his current plan. But to cover all his bases, Fitch plans to seek an amendment to his permit for a design change going forward. “The market that appears to be alive and well and ready to buy is downsizing and wants first-floor living,” he says. “We have to respond.” The original designs aimed at younger purchasers would still be available, though, “if that market really exists and comes out of hiding,” he adds.

All these gyrations make him even more dubious about the workforce housing idea. “It may just take the place of 40B,” says Fitch. “That would be fine with me, if it’s more attractive and palatable. But as a separate topic, I don’t know.”