About a year ago, Patrick Fortin and his wife were living in a basement apartment when they found out they were expecting a baby. Even with Mr. Fortin working 50 to 60 hours each week, they struggled to find an affordable place to raise their family in Falmouth, Mr. Fortin said.
“It was just totally out of our budget, even with me working full-time at a dealership down in Yarmouth,” he said.
After going through multiple real estate agents, he met with Linda Clark and Kathleen Botelho of the Falmouth Housing Corporation. They offered Mr. Fortin an affordable apartment he could rent on Edgerton Drive, he said.
“Without Linda and Kathleen reaching out to me… I don’t know where I’d be living, I don’t know where my child would lay his head at night, and as of right now he has a roof over his head to keep him warm in the wintertime and cool in the summer, so for that, I say thank you,” Mr. Fortin said.
Mr. Fortin was one of three affordable housing tenants who spoke to a room of about 100 people on Wednesday, October 2, at the Falmouth Public Library. Their testimonials were part of a two-hour affordable housing summit sponsored by the Falmouth Affordable Housing Committee and the Falmouth Planning Board.
The summit, titled “The Face of Affordable Housing in Falmouth: Myth vs. Reality,” involved a who’s-who of the affordable housing community. Members of the Falmouth Housing Trust, the Falmouth Housing Corporation, and the Falmouth Housing Authority were in attendance. Members of the zoning board of appeals and the planning board also turned out. Town Planner Thomas Bott and Town Manager Julian M. Suso sat in the audience.
Speakers at the summit made it clear that although affordable housing is a daunting issue, there are a number of ways to take action.
“Falmouth has not always been in the situation it is in now, as far as affordable housing,” said Eric Turkington, treasurer of the Falmouth Housing Corporation.
He clicked through a slideshow that featured statistics about housing development in Falmouth, beginning in the 1950s.
Construction of houses tapered off in the last decade, Mr. Turkington said. Until a little over 10 years ago, the town was constructing an average of 200 to 400 houses annually, but by 2017 that number had dwindled to just over 50 single-family homes. A decade ago, most homes on the market were listed for just under $300,000, he added, but now property listings show homes in the $400,000 to $500,000 range, on average, Mr. Turkington said.
Massachusetts has set a minimum standard that 10 percent of every town’s housing inventory be “affordable.” Mr. Turkington said that Falmouth’s current goal is 1,487 units, but the subsidized housing inventory lists 959, leaving a deficit of 528 units.
Building affordable rentals would help the town reach its subsidized housing inventory goal, but high building costs and low market rents make this option unattractive to local developers, Mr. Turkington said.
Christian Valle, president of the Valle Group, agreed with Mr. Turkington when he spoke about the challenges developers face building affordable housing.
“Things are not getting any cheaper to build,” Mr. Valle said. Construction costs today are double what they used to be 15 or 20 years ago, he said. Tariffs in China and Canada have driven up the cost of raw materials, and labor costs have increased as well, Mr. Valle added.
Modular construction is one way to lower construction costs, he said. A recently constructed 10-unit apartment building in Mashpee Commons was built in 13 pieces, which were trucked to Falmouth from Paris, Maine.
“We put it together and the cost of that was significantly less than what it would have been had we... built it as a stick-frame building,” he said.
Infrastructure costs could be lowered through a commitment to sewering, Mr. Valle said. “I can’t stress enough how important it is to put sewers in, so that land can be used for building homes and not for putting septic systems in,” Mr. Valle said.
A three-person panel of employers spoke of the need for affordable units in order to recruit and retain their employees. William Zammer, who owns the Flying Bridge restaurant in Falmouth with his wife, Linda Zammer, said he bought a hotel on Main Street and an adjacent house years ago to provide housing for summer staff. He brings in staff from Jamaica on temporary visas to work in his restaurants. Mr. Zammer said he would like to hire American workers but struggles to find people who can afford to live on Cape Cod. Some prospective hires may be able to afford the monthly rent, but struggle to come up with the first, last, and a deposit.
Falmouth Police Chief Edward A. Dunne said 17 of 55 Falmouth police officers do not live in Falmouth. Two members of his civilian staff live out of town as well. “When I started in ‘81, I can say that probably 95 percent of the police officers on the force lived in the Town of Falmouth,” he said. Chief Dunne added that officers are recruited from a residents list, which means that they often live in town when they are hired, but seek more affordable living options elsewhere after a few years. Police officers are required to live within 10 miles of the border of Falmouth, but when his officers live in Plymouth, he worries about getting them on-Cape during instances of bad weather.
For a single-person household to qualify for affordable housing at 80 percent of the area median income, he/she cannot make more than $51,250. For a two-person household that number increases to $58,600 and for a three-person household it totals $65,900.
The base starting salary for a police officer is $54,717 and the starting salary for a firefighter is $57,439.
After the summit, Chief Dunne added that many of his officers work details in addition to their regular eight-hour shifts, sometimes bringing their workday to a total of 16 hours.
Paul Niedzwiecki, vice president of strategy and government affairs for Cape Cod Healthcare, also weighed in on affordability during the panel section of the housing summit.
Cape Cod Healthcare represents the largest employer on Cape Cod, making it an “anchor institution,” he said. “We have difficulty recruiting across the board and housing is the number-one piece of that affordability issue that we deal with,” Mr. Niedzwiecki explained.
Cape Cod Healthcare has a number of employees who fit into affordable criteria, but “there just isn’t enough housing for them,” he said.
They even struggle with recruitment of higher-paid staff. Medical degrees are “portable,” which means doctors and nurses can choose where they want to live. “When you choose to come to the Cape, you’re choosing to buy into a real estate market where you’re going to buy less than you could somewhere else,” he said.
Mr. Niedzwiecki encouraged public investments in infrastructure and zoning changes that would allow higher density in specific areas of town.
From a regional viewpoint, he noted that each town within Barnstable County has individual organizations working to create and manage affordable housing. That means the overall budget for affordable housing gets split up into individual CPA accounts and used for projects in separate towns, rather than used for one large, county effort.
A microphone was passed around the room twice, so that members of the audience could ask questions of the panelists and other speakers.
William Marston of Locustfield Road asked about two affordable condominium units for which there are no applicants for Maloney Properties’ housing lottery in North Falmouth. Falmouth Housing coordinator Carla Feroni said that the issue was not a lack of interest in the units, but rather the cost of the units.
The cost, $232,000, falls within guidelines for affordability set by the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development, but that does not mean someone can afford a mortgage on one of the condos while still meeting 80 percent median income affordability criteria, Ms. Feroni said.
The application period for that housing lottery closes on October 11 and if the developer does not receive any applications, it will have to start the 60-day application period over again. A developer is typically required to sell the affordable units before selling market-rate units in a Chapter 40B development, Ms. Feroni told Mr. Marston, which is an incentive to find applicants.
At the conclusion of the summit, Ms. Feroni noted that “it takes a community to build affordable housing.”
“People [will] wonder, when they walk out of this building tonight, I think, ‘What can any one of [us] do individually to help build affordable housing?’ Well, we have a variety of committees in town that I’m sure would love to have your support. Attend their community meetings.” She mentioned the community preservation committee, the planning board, the zoning board of appeals, and the affordable housing committee. “Speak up, have your voice heard,” Ms. Feroni said.