Governor Charles D. Baker Jr. paid a visit to Little Pond Place July 22 to participate in a roundtable discussion with local officials regarding affordable housing on Cape Cod.
“Almost every survey, every study I’ve seen for the last five or six years, says the single thing that makes Massachusetts an expensive place to live more than anything else is the cost of housing,” Gov. Baker said. “And when you think about that giant amount in rent or mortgage that people pay, and what that does to their ability to pay for almost anything else, it really is something that deserves to be recognized and dealt with in a serious way.”
Among the participants were Falmouth Town Manager Julian M. Suso, Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, state Senator Susan Moran, Eric T. Turkington, and Alisa Magnotta, CEO of the Housing Assistance Corporation in Barnstable County. The meeting was held in the community center at Little Pond Place, where Gov. Baker was given a tour of one of the residential units that were completed last summer.
“For the past 30 years, we’ve been building about a third of the new units of housing that we used to build, and if you actually look at what’s happened to our population and what’s happened to the actual number of homes we’ve built, it’s not even close,” Gov. Baker said. “One of the things that happens when you don’t keep up is that you create shortages, and when you create shortages you create demand, and when you create demand, you create price fights. I think all of us have seen that happen in a very small microcosm as we come out of the pandemic.”
High demand for housing on Cape Cod is not an entirely new phenomenon; however, the problem has been exacerbated by the prospect of turning potential year-round homes into Airbnb’s, which can be rented at high rates.
“In preparation for this meeting, I went on and looked up year-round housing in Falmouth. I looked at every single listing that every single broker in every single community had, and I found 10 year-round rentals available in the Town of Falmouth right now,” Mr. Turkington said. “They ranged from $1,700 per month, plus utilities, to $11,500 per month, plus utilities. Another place I went to was Airbnb. There are 300 listings on Airbnb in the Town of Falmouth, up to $500 a night. So you see what we’re up against.”
Mr. Turkington then introduced the latest plan to create more housing opportunities in Falmouth: the proposed mixed-use overlay district, which would foster the creation of diverse housing opportunities as well as stimulate the local economy. He explained how the plan would allow for 20 units per acre by right—25 percent of which will be affordable housing—and stressed the importance of expanding the housing market on Cape Cod, which is currently 92 percent single-family homes.
“Some of it has to do with our zoning laws, which many of us have worked like mad over the past five years to get changed, so we wouldn’t see any more stories written that said something like ‘City Council Votes 7-4 in Favor of New Housing Plan and It Failed,’” Gov. Baker said. “Honestly, every time that happened I would just bang my head against the wall wherever I was.”
Proposed zoning modifications, such as the mixed-use overlay district, are just one of the many ways officials are hoping to change the housing market on the Cape. The panel was in agreement about this: with a region as diverse as Cape Cod, each community will need to engineer its own unique and creative solutions to the housing problem.
“In our office in the past month, we have had over 50 households coming in… they’re fully employed, their house had sold to someone else who is moving in and they have no place to go,” Ms. Magnotta said. “There are literally no rentals; we have less than a 1 percent vacancy of rentals on the Cape year-round… We’re seeing it escalate because of the COVID situation when any white-collar worker can work from anywhere they want. So they choose their favorite vacation destination and now they’re coming here, which is great. So it’s not an ‘or’; it’s an ‘and.’ But the only way for it to be an ‘and’ is for us to start on housing production.”
Ms. Magnotta also brought up the topic of accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, which are smaller residential units that exist on the same property as the main home and belong to the same owner. These year-round rental units, which fell out of style sometime during the 20th century, provide the homeowner with income through rent and allow for an increase in population density without having to introduce major construction projects to the area.
“What I’m finding in the research is that accessory dwelling units are very similar to solar panels when we were trying to get them on the roofs, so that homeowners would participate in clean energy and solve this community problem,” Ms. Magnotta said. “With accessory dwelling units, we have the opportunity to do the same thing: we incentivize the homeowner; we have favorable loan products; and we have technical assistance available. With all of the same components of the solar panels, we can bring more ADUs online.”
The only potential issue with creating more ADUs in Falmouth would be homeowners’ opting to rent out their ADU as an Airbnb to generate more income as opposed to a year-round rental. Ms. Magnotta said that there the pilot program would ideally have a built-in monitoring system to ensure that ADUs are used as year-round rentals for residents rather than short-term tourist stays. The ADU program would also offer assistance to homeowners who are interested in adding an ADU to their property but do not know where to start. With a program like this, she said, hundreds of rental units could spring up over the course of a few months.
“We’ve managed to put a lot of money to work over the course of the past few years but it’s not enough, and that’s part of the reason why we filed $1 billion in ARPA funds, primarily focused on housing,” Gov. Baker said. “The lieutenant governor and I love the Town of Falmouth, but if we don’t do something more than we’ve done—whether it’s senior housing, downtown housing, workforce housing, affordable housing—and also put some serious elbow grease into home ownership, we’re simply never going to get to where we need to get to if we want to make this a place where people of regular and modest means can find a way to put a stick in the ground and make a living and make a life.”