How to transform Falmouth from a predominately white, upper-middle class community with a dearth of housing to match area median incomes was the topic of an affordable housing summit held Wednesday, October 14, on Zoom and broadcasted live on Falmouth Community Television. The event was organized by the Falmouth Affordable Housing Committee and focused on the correlation between affordable housing and social justice.
Committee chairman Edward Curley said he received a lot of comments and questions during the event, including ones from a Falmouth Select Board member and a nonprofit developer in Falmouth.
“I was impressed with the variety of info that was presented in just 90 minutes,” he said. The program ran the gamut from a local perspective on the state 40B and local initiative programs, state programs, examples of affordable housing strategies in other parts of Cape Cod and a brief history of housing policies that led to racial inequalities.
“We heard a passionate request that we commit to building ‘equitable housing’ to allow more diverse essential workers who support our local economy to be able to live in the town in which they work,” Mr. Curley said. “I think those who watched learned a lot.”
Alisa Magnotta, chief executive officer at the Housing Assistance Corporation, gave an overview of the now illegal federal policy called “redlining,” by which the Federal Housing Administration from 1934 to 1968 made home ownership accessible to white people by guaranteeing their loans, while refusing to back loans to Black people or even other people who lived near Black people. At the same time, the FHA was subsidizing builders who were mass-producing entire subdivisions for whites.
“This contributed to our wealth and is one of contributing factors of institutional racism we heard about during the Black Lives Matter protests. These families, generations of them, lost out on the opportunity to build wealth, that the rest of us were afforded—to build a home, build wealth, to hand it down to our children,” she said.
She blamed those federal policies coupled with single-family housing zoning that dominates Cape Cod as reasons for the lack of affordable housing.
“On Cape Cod, 82 percent of homes are single-family houses, and we are 92 percent white. The high cost of building and the high cost of land exceeds area median wages and keeping people from being people who don’t look like us, or young professionals and service-industry workers, from living here.”
She offered solutions, including tax breaks for landlords who rent year-round.
“We can incentivize homeowners to convert their seasonal home to a year-round use,” she said.
There also needs to be a greater investment from towns to build rentals and smaller starter homes, or a town-run rental subsidy that bridges the gap between wages and market-rate rents, and zoning changes that allow for multifamily housing instead of just one house on one lot.
Falmouth Assistant Town Manager Peter Johnson-Staub said Chapter 40B was adopted in 1969 with fair housing requirements imbedded in the law. It requires the marketing and advertising of the project to include reaching diverse communities.
“That’s not to say it solved the problem, but at least it moved beyond segregation by policy,” he said.
Chapter 40B is a section of the state law that allows development outside a town’s bylaws in exchange for a percentage of affordable housing.
And while residents agree with the concept, there is often opposition when a project is being proposed that often has bypassed local density and design bylaws.
“It’s different when a project is being built in your backyard,” Mr. Johnson-Staub said.
Laura Shufelt, acting director at Massachusetts Housing Partnership, recommended finding and using public land when possible to keep costs down and pointed to the recent project in Eastham called Villages at Nauset Green.
“The town-owned land was disposed of to a private developer who put 65 units, 50 below 60 percent AMI,” she said. AMI is area median income, and a person making 60 percent of that is considered to be low-income. She also noted successful zoning changes that allowed for more housing along Yarmouth’s Route 28, formerly a motel strip.
“They are now able to rehabilitate old motels that no longer meet the needs of tourists. The large apartment complex Yarmouth Commons, on the site of the former Cavalier Motor Lodge property, has 69 units with 60 of them at 60 percent AMI. Mr. Shufelt said both projects were made more affordable to developers with injections of money from the state and local Community Preservation Act funds.
A staunch advocate of affordable housing, state Senator James B. Eldridge, a Democrat from the Middlesex and Worcester District, said he would like to see more housing authorities build housing.
A few years ago, the state rolled out the Public Housing Mixed-Income Community Demonstration Program that provides planning and predevelopment funding to housing authorities interested in partnering with a developer.
“While 40B is helpful, the units at 80 percent of area median income is still too high in a town like Falmouth and does not serve a lot of working families,” Sen. Eldridge said. “What is powerful about public housing is it costs a third of your income and creates a stable environment for many. I am pleased the state is looking more to invest in public housing, but we need more authorities to take steps to build it.”
When it comes to the incomes of people living on Cape Cod, Ms. Magnotta said the annual salary of a full-time restaurant worker is $30,000 a year.
“That means they can afford no more than $750 in rent or a home around $120,000, and none of these scenarios exists. We need to decide that basic housing can be built and invest in these smaller homes.”
The summit will be aired again on FCTV in the next few months.