Cape Cod rental housing shortage leaves middle-income families struggling to find a home
EASTHAM — Allie and Joe Dubois work four jobs between them, make enough to pay the bills and rent on time and enroll their 14-year-old honor student son in after-school activities.
But like a growing number of families and individuals on Cape Cod, their comfortable lifestyle was upended when their landlord announced plans to sell the Eastham rental where they’ve lived for the past four years.
“We needed someplace to go,” Allie said.
But there were none.
The Cape’s super-hot housing market has made a difficult rental market even tougher including for middle-income people who have the wherewithal to pay for housing. Advocates say there’s no end in sight.
Allie looked at advertisements for rental housing on Craigslist but they were drawing hundreds of responses.
“Heart-felt, pleading responses,” said Allie, who works at Lost Dog Pub in Orleans as a server and also does food prep at La Tacodilla in West Dennis and landscaping.
The Dubois put the word out to an extensive network of friends and acquaintances.
Joe Dubois works for his family’s concrete foundation business, E.C. Dubois & Sons, and has plenty of contacts.
“We know everybody," Allie said.
But the only rental opportunity they found was a $2,300 monthly winter rental, which is $600 more than they paid per month for their two-floor rental right off Route 6.
Instead of housing, what they found were at least four other families in Eastham in the same predicament — and many more across Cape Cod.
“It’s really terrible how many families” are affected by the sales of long-term housing, Allie said.
Cape Cod's 'hidden homeless'
A lack of affordable rental housing has been a perennial problem on Cape Cod for decades but the pandemic ratcheted it up to crises mode.
“Years ago we knew it was a growing problem. The change in the real estate market during COVID took it over the edge,” said Maggi Flanagan, program director at the Homeless Prevention Council in Orleans, which provides rental assistance, case management and school supplies to families in need.
Barnstable County was fourth in the nation in the percentage of in-migration in 2020, according to the New York Times, which analyzed U.S. Postal Service change of address statistics.
The number of people moving to the Cape in 2020 increased by 4.2% percentage points over 2019.
A third-quarter real estate report by Sotheby’s says that the average sale price of a home in Eastham is $718,820 and the median price is $640,000 — both figures 17% higher than the year before.
On the Cape and Islands, the median price of a single-family home climbed to $625,500 in September, up from $550,000 in September 2020, a 12% increase, according to the Cape Cod & Islands Association of Realtors.
Between landlords having an incentive to sell and prospective Cape homeowners eager to buy, rental housing stock on Cape Cod has taken a plunge, housing advocates say.
Flanagan said she is working with a first responder and family members “who have enough income to afford a rental, but they are unable to locate a rental. That’s a big problem across the board.”
“We’re just hearing from more and more people who say, ‘I have the money. I can pay the rent,” she said.
“This growing group of moderate-income individuals is what we call our hidden homeless,” said Hadley Luddy, executive director of the Homeless Prevention Council in Orleans.
'People are really embarrassed'
Not used to relying on assistance, they often call the Homeless Prevention Council two weeks or so before they have to be out of their rental after they have exhausted all other options.
“A lot of times people are really embarrassed. It’s a hard call to make. It’s a hard thing to pick up the phone and say, ‘I don’t know where to turn,” Luddy said. “It’s distressing for anyone, regardless of income.”
Jay Coburn, executive director of the Community Development Partnership in Eastham, said another issue is that moderate-income families may not qualify for what little affordable housing currently exists.
Deed restricted or subsidized housing is restricted to people earning 80% or less of area median income, which in Barnstable County is $71,440 and below.
The reality is there is little affordable housing available to people earning between 60 and 80% of area median income, Coburn said.
What that means is that people earning more than $20 an hour working full-time, or who are part of a two-wage earning family, make too much money to qualify for affordable housing, he said.
Stalking vacation rental sites for off-season housing
To battle it out on the open marketplace, moderate-income families turn to the Cape Cod Year Round Rentals Facebook page and look for winter rentals on vacation websites such as Airbnb.com and WeNeedAVacation.com.
While some people have had luck with winter rentals on the vacation sites, not all of the off-season rentals are affordable for middle-income earners — especially on the Lower and Outer Cape.
Peggy O'Sullivan, 26, has given up finding an affordable year-round rental for now.
Instead, she lives with her parents in the summer, which is also when she begins her search for a winter rental, primarily on WeNeedAVacation.com and Craigslist.
"I'll send 60 to 70 messages to the homeowners. It's a project that takes up weeks of my time every year."
For two winters in a row the UMass Lowell graduate lived with two roommates in what she described as a beautiful house in Brewster.
But last year the homeowner said, "'Sorry guys, I'm going to move into this house with my family,'" said O'Sullivan, who works at Dirt Farm in Orleans and at Big Tree Video in Hyannis, producing advertisements and social media for local businesses.
O'Sullivan said her landlord in Brewster sold his year-round home in Harwich as housing prices reached a fever pitch during the pandemic.
"I think it was a good move for him. It's the kind of thing that happened over COVID," she said. "It made the rental market even harder than it was."
O'Sullivan said she is currently living in a winter rental in Harwich with a married couple who have the second floor to themselves.
"The selling point was two full bathrooms," she said.
O'Sullivan, who grew up in Yarmouth, said she considers herself lucky.
She knows of other young people who spend the summer couch surfing or living in vans or cars.
Cape housing shortage forces some to move to other states
While rental housing may be out of reach during the high season, that is also when Cape Cod residents make most of their money, O'Sullivan said.
But the struggle can be too intense and more and more of her peers are moving off Cape, she said.
Alisa Magnotta, executive director at the Housing Assistance Corp. in Hyannis, said she knows five people who recently moved from the Cape to locations including Florida, Michigan and New Jersey after being priced out of the Cape.
"Their place sold and they couldn't find another house. And they didn't want to fight the market."
Some of the individuals moved in with family or found jobs that allowed them to take advantage of more plentiful housing stock in other locations.
Neal Ahern, a shellfisherman in Orleans, is loading up his Pathfinder and moving back to California on Thursday after living with his father and stepmother for two years because he couldn't find a rental on Cape Cod.
“I make decent money by clamming. I could afford to rent a place here," said Ahern, who is 42.
But there is "a startling lack of housing stock," he said.
A friend in Sonoma County, California, offered to let him take over the lease on a one-bedroom apartment for $1,600 a month, so Ahern is heading west to the state he left in 2019 to restart a grilled oyster business.
“I’m a Cape Codder. I like being on the flats digging clams," Ahern said. But "I don't want to live here so bad I would continue staying at my dad’s house for the rest of my life.”
Magnotta calls people who can afford but can't find rental housing "the missing middle."
They don't qualify for rental assistance and don't own their own homes so they are not in a home forbearance or modification program, which are typical ways to keep statistics on people struggling with housing problems.
"There's no way to really track them," Magnotta said.
Unlike the poorest of Cape Cod renters, "people in the missing middle have some resources," including family, friends and the ability to pay relocation costs if they up and move, she said.
For HAC employee Romy Maimon, being in the middle meant she had enough resources to borrow funds to purchase a house in Yarmouth after her beloved rental house in Dennis was sold this summer.
Her rental lease didn't end until December, but as a HAC employee, Maimon knows how desperate the housing market is. She said the rental property she'd been living in sold without an inspection. So she grabbed the first property she could afford.
"It's not something I would have ever done if I had a chance to breathe and make a real decision," Maimon said.
"I literally had to. There are no rentals I could afford. Plus, I have pets. And nobody takes pets. It is a terrifying thing."
"It is still better than a motel or having to move out of state," said Maimon, who grew up in Woods Hole.
'Build our way out' of the Cape Cod housing shortage
“The only way to get out of this problem is to build our way out,” Coburn said, adding the Cape needs housing developments with higher density and access to sewers.
The good news is that Lower Cape towns have affordable housing projects in the works.
But towns need to get even more aggressive about building for lower-income as well as moderate-income families and individuals — and that means setting aside all or most of a municipality’s short-term rental and room tax proceeds for housing, he said.
Developers need subsidies even for moderate-income rental units, Coburn said.
In the meantime, there is an immediate need for housing. Proposed projects in Provincetown,
Wellfleet and Brewster are three to four years away from opening their doors, Coburn said.
In an effort to drum up rental housing within a short time period, Luddy is asking towns to encourage existing homeowners to rent their property.
Solutions could include winterizing a summer cottage or renting out a second home in the winter, Luddy said.
Building an accessory dwelling unit is another short-term solution that can benefit the homeowner while increasing the supply of rentals, Coburn said.
If a homeowner gets a $100,000 home equity loan to build a unit and rents it for $1,200 to $1,600 a month, the homeowner will come out ahead, Coburn said.
Joe Dubois said he and Allie considered purchasing a trailer and living in someone’s yard when their Cape-style rental house went on the market in May, just before the start of the busy summer season.
Unable to find a place to rent before the landlord’s requested move-out date of Aug. 1, the couple received an eviction notice.
Help came from someone close to the family’s heart — Allie’s father.
Knowing their predicament, he purchased a three-bedroom ranch in Brewster that they moved into early this month.
“He didn’t do this for himself. He didn’t want to buy a house in this market,” Joe Dubois said of his father-in-law.
The house is smaller than their current rental by nearly 1,000 square feet but is in the Nauset Regional High School district where their son attends school.
Allie said her father plans to sell the house in five years, to them or another home buyer.
“That gets my son through high school, she said.
Allie said she will miss the Eastham rental with the many large windows that allowed her growing collection of houseplants to flourish.
The family set furniture and items that didn’t make the move on the side of the highway, where they were snapped up by passersby.
Allie took the plants, two cats, a brown sectional sofa and the cow skull she got for her 30th birthday to her new home in Brewster.
As relieved as she is that the family has a new rental, Allie said she feels guilty about having a family benefactor when so many other hardworking people she knows do not.
“It’s the luck and the privilege I have” that is maintaining the family’s housing stability, Allie said.
Otherwise they, too, could be members of the hidden homeless.
“The working-class people know about this,” Allie said. “It’s happening to their friend, their waitress, their cousin.”
Contact Cynthia McCormick can be reached at cmccormick@capecodonline. Follow her on Twitter: @Cmccormickcct.