The affordable housing citizen’s advisory group on Monday, July 21, grappled with the complicated issue of Falmouth’s affordable housing shortage, identifying barriers to the creation of affordable homes in town and brainstorming on possible solutions.
The mission of the advisory group’s meeting was to discuss the preliminary findings of a comprehensive Falmouth housing study. Town housing consultant Judi Barrett of RKG Associates is compiling a three-part report that is due to town officials in September.
The citizens advisory group is composed of one representative each from the EDIC (Economic Development Industrial Corporation), affordable housing committee, human services, planning board and Falmouth’s housing trust to work with the contractor.
On Monday, July 21, the group cited many ongoing problems—Falmouth’s inability to retain young professionals, the working poor unable to afford year-round housing, the “onerous” bylaws and complicated steps needed to build affordable homes in town—but the study unearthed a new trend, stating that 77 percent of new homes being built in Falmouth are seasonal, amounting to 1,400 new units in the last decade. This is a mix of newly constructed housing units and homeowners converting their once year-round residences to seasonal homes.
“Martha’s Vineyard is now saturated with second homes, and people are looking to Falmouth to build,” said Marlene McCollem, assistant town planner.
Ms. Barrett said she has seen this trend in many resort towns: Housing that used to be available to the working class has been taken up by seasonal homes once seasonal homes in surrounding towns becomes prohibitively expensive.
“There are families here in town that live in a vacation home in the winter and are forced to camp out in the summer months while that home is being rented weekly. That’s no way for our residents to live,” said Holly L. Wilson, member of the affordable housing committee.
Members of the advisory group talked of creating a land trust, similar to what the Town of Tisbury on Martha’s Vineyard created to subsidize homeowners and persuade them to allow year-round rentals.
Michael B. Galasso, chairman of the EDIC and a member of the advisory group, asked Ms. Barrett to report on the long-term effects building mostly seasonal homes would have on Falmouth.
Ms. Barrett suggested loosening the zoning bylaws to promote the creation of accessory apartments.
These units are self-contained housing units usually within a house or a separate building on a property. Ms. Barrett said many towns use these as a way to help shore up housing shortages. Falmouth requires a special permit and only allows them to be built in a house.
“You can ask your government to rewrite your bylaws laws to make it less onerous on homeowners to build them,” Ms. Barrett said. “It’s not the zoning board’s fault. They are simply following the law.”
Anne C. Saganic, executive director of the Falmouth Housing Trust, said it is not just the bylaws hindering progress, but committees in town that “need to get on the same page” with affordable housing.
“It takes me years to get a project through the town system. They all need to get on the same page and align with the town’s affordable housing goals,” she said. “It’s territorial garbage.”
Ms. Barrett said many young and working families do not want to buy an affordable home with a deed restriction that keeps the house in the affordable housing inventory.
“They want to build up equity, so they are choosing to not buy these houses,” she said.
The question was raised as to who would oppose changing bylaws to allow for more affordable home to be built.
“We first need to educate people in town on what affordable housing is. It’s not Section 8 units full of drug dealers. It’s working people who can’t afford the average home price in town,” said Patti B. Haney, a member of the Falmouth Housing Authority who was in attendance.
“We could work toward creating zoning laws to help stimulate the housing market,” Ms. McCollem said.
But, Ralph E. Herbst of the planning board said that might not be enough.
“Does setting up a housing market deal with the issue and keep young people from leaving? Can these young people afford market price in Falmouth?” he asked.
Ms. Barrett said some communities use community preservation funds to augment housing projects and suggested perhaps Falmouth could do the same.
Mr. Galasso agreed that part of the solution could be creating a modern apartment complex with amenities like a gym and/or cafes that appeal to young professionals.
Ms. Barrett will be presenting the findings of the study to a joint meeting of the selectmen and planning board members in September and then to the town at large at a roundtable in October.