The housing crisis on Cape Cod is so dire that a local housing advocate said it might be time to winterize motel rooms and bring in FEMA-type trailers to house residents who are temporarily dislocated.
It’s that bad, said Hadley Luddy, CEO of the Orleans-based Homeless Prevention Council.
Time and again, she said, her agency is getting calls from Lower and Outer Cape residents saying, “My rental has been sold, and I have to be out in 30 days. Where can I go and how can you help me?"
The Cape needs temporary housing solutions “right now,” Luddy said.
“There is really no time to waste.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken an already existing housing problem on the Cape and turned it into “an existential crisis” that threatens the character and workforce of Cape Cod, state Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro, said Thursday during a press briefing by the COVID-19 Response Task Force.
With the daily count of new COVID-19 cases dwindling to single digits or less, the response task force has pivoted to addressing the Cape’s lack of affordable housing.
It's been an issue for decades, Cyr said.
But the pandemic that brought new homeowners and remote workers to the Cape — and made it fourth in the nation in the percentage of in-migration in 2020, according to the New York Times — also brought record-high housing prices.
The median price for a single-family home in Barnstable County increased 27% over last June to $560,000 currently, Cyr said.
The Wall Street Journal said Cape Cod has some of the lowest housing inventory in the country, he said.
'People are leaving'
Residents and would-be Cape employees can’t compete with people from across the Eastern seaboard and beyond buying property to live in or for investment purposes, Cyr said.
He said he knows a dozen people who were forced to move from the Outer Cape this spring due to a shortage of housing.
Since most of the land-use power in Massachusetts resides in municipalities, it is time for Cape Cod towns to aggressively pursue housing strategies, Cyr said.
That includes making zoning changes that allow accessory apartments and multi-family use, developing wastewater strategies and taking on bigger housing projects.
Municipalities need to “commit to a fundamental reimagining of what we are willing to do,” Cyr said.
“Or we will not have year-round sustainable communities.”
The Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce has made housing its top policy priority, said Wendy Northcross, the chamber’s outgoing CEO.
“Housing is crushing our small businesses, lack of housing.”
The level of service people have come to expect at Cape business establishments will decline unless there is more affordable housing for employees, Northcross said.
Funds from the short-term rental tax need to go to a housing fund, and zoning changes have to be made that enable smart growth and accessory apartments, she said.
“We’ve been challenging (zoning changes) because of some preconceived notion that everybody needs a single-family home on an acre of land. Those days are gone.”
A legislative proposal to raise funds from a real estate transfer fee would help raise capital for housing developments, said Philippe Jordi of the Island Housing Trust on Martha’s Vineyard, where the median home price is now $1.5 million.
“We have more money than many small countries right here on the Cape and Islands,” he said. The issue is tapping into it, Jordi said.
On Nantucket, the median home price climbed 28% over the past year to $2.18 million today, said Tucker Holland, a housing specialist for the town of Nantucket.
The town’s housing inventory is close to 10% affordable, but that is not enough, Holland said.
Nantucket officials have been working to address the problem, he said. "But Nantucket "cannot solve the problem on its own. We are hopeful the Legislature will see the wisdom in enabling this legislation for a transfer fee.”
Diversified housing stock
The Cape needs to prioritize multi-family units, said Chris Flanagan, executive director of the Home Builders & Remodelers Association of Cape Cod.
“There is little land left to develop. What we are in need of is diversified housing stock.”
Luddy said her agency’s caseload increased by 31% from 2019 to 2020.
Homeless Prevention Council officials are struggling with how to help people whose rental homes are being sold or otherwise removed from the market, she said.
The stock of winter rentals is dwindling, and people whose income puts them just over the threshold for assistance are also facing housing insecurity, Luddy said.
“We continue to be concerned about those who fall through the safety net.”
Some of the ideas being discussed include providing dislocated people with tiny houses, winterized motel rooms and trailers, Luddy said.
Some cringe at the thought of this kind of temporary housing, Luddy said.
“But the reality is there is literally no place to go.”