The news that the current Falmouth location of the National Academy of Sciences in Quissett is on the market is notable for a couple of reasons. First, the property has been owned and managed by the National Academy since 1975 and has been a hub of summer scientific dialogue, hosting worldwide discussions on heady and relevant topics of the day and attracting scientists from all over the world. Its sale marks the end of an era. Second, the listing price of $27,500,000 is a stark and alarming symbol of the skyrocketing value of property in Falmouth and the increasing and distressing elusiveness of the concept of homeownership for so many in our community.
Of course, the purchase of any property for more than $20 million is reserved for the very wealthy, but the listed sale price and proposed value of this property, far above its assessed value, are indicative of the meteoric rise in most property values during the recent pandemic-fueled real estate boom, taking away the possibility of owning a home for many hardworking Falmouthites. The values may be great news for those who already own property, but have built a significant additional barrier for those wanting to work and live in Falmouth.
I’ve said this before in this space, but it bears repeating in a discussion on this topic. Each morning when I head to work, I drive over the Bourne Bridge around 7:30 AM, and each morning, no matter the time of year, there is a traffic jam headed on-Cape. That daily traffic is not a result of any substandard roadway infrastructure; it is a direct result of the inability of many who work in Falmouth—the workers who keep our economy chugging along, keep our community safe, and keep our children supported and educated—to find an affordable place to rent or own in this community.
Six months ago, I wrote on this topic and highlighted the work of the Falmouth Affordable Housing Committee (AHC), hoping that their efforts would be recognized and supported. In that column, I noted that, “This issue is not a conceptual or academic one. The lack of housing for our frontline workers—from grocery store staff to restaurant team members, from public safety workers to teachers, has reached a critical mass, and urgent and sweeping action is needed. We have an entire generation of citizens—diverse in race, culture, ethnicity, economics and education—who have been priced out of both the rental and ownership housing market and we face an ugly homogeneity as the future of our community if we don’t act now. With the average home price sprinting past $600,000 in Falmouth, the average family needs to have income of more than $160,000 per year to sustain a mortgage. That makes homeownership out of reach for virtually every teacher, firefighter, police officer, nurse, and grocery store worker in our community. That’s not a challenge. That’s a crisis.”
These months later, the crisis remains, but fortunately, so does the work of the AHC. The proposals they introduced in their report to the select board in August now have the potential of becoming a reality and creating some sustained funding to address this critical issue. There are three proposals on the Fall Town Meeting warrant, one of which is a good start, and the other two are necessary long-term solutions to create sustainable funding to build homes and rental units in our community.
The first, Article 14, seeks to transfer $4 million in certified free cash to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. Both the select board and the town manager should be commended for taking this important and historic step. This sends a clear message that addressing the housing crisis and dedicating funding to build units in Falmouth for both ownership and rental are policy priorities. This amount will allow for the construction of housing, where those who today sit in a traffic jam at the bridge in the morning can instead sit in their kitchens with their families and plan their day. Four million dollars seems like a significant amount—and it is—but it is a good start, not the total solution.
The other two articles complement the first and would create sustainable revenue sources that could then also be appropriated to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund to create a continuous stream of revenue for years to come. Article 15 seeks to increase the local room excise tax—a fee paid by visitors—by 1 percent. Article 16 seeks to impose a community impact fee of up to 3 percent on short-term rentals in town. This fee would also be paid by visitors who enjoy our community each year. This is an appropriate formula to create revenue without asking local homeowners and taxpayers to pay more. It creates a small and manageable fee that visitors and short-term seasonal renters will surely be willing to pay.
Our strength is our diversity in Falmouth—cultural, economic, and intellectual diversity. We’ve always been a melting pot of a wide variety of tiles in the human mosaic, and that variety makes us a better place to live, work, think and create. A lack of affordable and approachable places to live for both owners and renters is putting that diversity in peril. The affordable housing committee has put some solutions—both short- and long-term—on the table for our elected officials to consider, and I urge them to support them. The Falmouth we know and love is at stake.