Housing affordability becoming ‘existential crisis’ for Cape Cod

Year-round residents getting pushed out as prices and demand soar

SOARING HOUSING COSTS have become an alarming problem across the state, but on Cape Cod the crisis is even more urgent. 

While the area’s natural beauty and beaches make it an attractive place for the well-off to splurge on vacation homes, it has also driven up housing prices so sharply that its year-round community is struggling to survive. 

The region saw a 38 percent increase in the median price of single-family homes sold in the past year, according to The Cape Cod and Islands Association of Realtors. The median price of homes sold in May of this year was $630,000. At the same time housing inventory dropped, putting further upward pressure on prices. 

“If we don’t change course, if we don’t fundamentally change what we’re doing, we’re not going to have year-round communities [on the Cape],” said state Sen. Julian Cyr, a Truro Democrat, a legislative hearing on Wednesday. 

Cyr, who represents Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket, is sponsoring a bill that he describes as a “toolkit” of policy remedies for municipalities to use in creating sustainable conditions for the Cape’s year-round community. 

Cyr knows from experience that long-term renters are in a uniquely precarious position. If displaced from their current residences, most won’t be able to afford inflated market prices. Even on a senator’s salary, Cyr says he feels vulnerable as a renter. 

His legislation was one of 19 bills considered at a hearing of the Joint Committee on Housing. 

Displacement isn’t just a looming threat for Cape Cod residents. Increasingly, it is a reality. Alisa Magnotta, CEO of Housing Assistance Corporation, a regional housing agency for Cape Cod and the islands, who testified in support of Cyr’s bill, said that in the past six weeks 50 households have approached her office for help. Driven by a raging seller’s market, their landlords sold their units and the residents were newly homeless. 

Magnotta said her organization’s homeless outreach caseload doubled in the past year. Many of its clients are newly homeless despite holding full-time jobs. “They are hoping to get through the summer living in their cars, at campgrounds, or on a friend’s couch,” she testified. “They are praying another rental will open up in the fall.” 

Though the housing crisis is plaguing communities across the state, Magnotta said the situation on the Cape is worse because its year-round workforce is competing with second- and third-home owners. Now that work has gone remote, affluent, white-collar workers can Zoom into their 9 a.m. meeting from wherever they like. For many, that’s a breezy porch on the iconic Massachusetts peninsula. 

“No household making less than $200,000 can live here,” Magnotta said. “That’d be a big pay raise for our bank tellers, our childcare workers, and our CNAs.” 

Cyr’s legislation offers a multi-pronged set of policy solutions to a problem so grave that he says no single measure will make a significant dent in the problem. The bill includes property tax incentives for landlords renting at affordable rates, provisions that afford the Department of Housing and Community Development right of first refusal on foreclosed properties and allow it to enter into agreements to construct new housing, and a proposal to study tiny homes. 

Tiny homes are defined in the bill as detached structures of 600 square feet or less. They can be built on a permanent foundation or on a portable chassis. Currently, housing and sanitary codes preclude people from living in these dwellings, but Cyr wants to research their potential to increase housing density. “Tiny homes have been useful elsewhere,” he said. “[On the Cape and the Islands] we have such limited available land … our best bang for our buck is to build more densely.” 

“I cannot convey more strongly what an existential crisis this is for our communities,” said Cyr.

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Magnotta echoed his message. “We implore this committee and our Legislature to prioritize tools in any bill that will actually result in new production and shovels in the ground so that our residents, our friends, and our neighbors have housing, not just prayers,” she said.