In 2013 Longfellow Design Build recruited Mark Barr, a kitchen and bath designer with decades of experience. At the time, Mr. Barr was working and living in Connecticut.
Mr. Barr spent nine months splitting time between Connecticut and Falmouth through an arrangement with the owner of Longfellow Design Build, Mark Bogosian. In 2014, he and his family decided to make the move to Falmouth, securing a rental for a limited period of time to help with the transition. When the rental ended just before the summer of 2015, his employer, Mr. Bogosian, offered a solution. He owned a three-bedroom, two-bath home he could rent to Mr. Barr.
Mr. Barr rented that property for about four years before closing on a house this past April. He is still sorting through some remaining boxes left over from the move.
Mr. Barr is one of many employees in Falmouth that have used employer-provided housing to transition to working and living in town.
Renting through his employer kept costs reasonable. Rentals in the area can go through bidding wars, similar to for-sale homes, driving the price for three-bedroom units up to $2,000 per month, he said.
“That’s what it is. It’s the market,” he said. “You can’t change it.”
Mr. Bogosian owns about 70 units, mostly apartments and some houses. A majority of the apartments he owns are rented at below-market rates to members of the community, unrelated to his business. The rest help the employees he recruits from off-Cape transition to Falmouth.
Mr. Bogosian is not alone. In the midst of what some in the affordable housing world are calling a “crisis,” large employers across industries in and around Falmouth have taken on similar burdens. Employers provide housing to help staff many types of businesses including restaurants and hotels, landscaping firms and construction companies. The issue of finding affordable, workforce housing is felt most on-season, when employers need an influx of workers to supplement their payroll.
“Providing housing has become a critical part of hiring,” said Elizabeth Colt, owner of the Woods Hole Inn, the Treehouse Lodge and Quicks Hole Tavern.
While employers like Mr. Bogosian have made year-round housing a priority, many employers limit their housing to seasonal workers. “Seasonal” is a flexible term. For William Zammer, who owns restaurants in Falmouth, Dennis Port and Hyannis, seasonal workers sign on for nine months’ employment.
Robert Maffei, CEO of Maffei Landscaping, recruits workers for 10-month positions. Ms. Colt offers a more conservative number for her two hotels and restaurant, stating that seasonal means four to five months out of the year.
Employees come through J-1 visa programs and H-2B visas, as well as from other US states and territories, such as Puerto Rico. The numbers of employees required varies between industries. Ms. Colt hires up to 30 workers on average for the season, often mixing American, J-1 visa, and H-2B visa statuses.
Mr. Maffei hires 30 workers for Maffei Landscaping, recruiting predominately from Puerto Rico. He has switched from the H-2B visa program to this sort of recruitment, citing issues with the availability of visas.
“The only way for us to recruit people is to provide housing,” Mr. Maffei said. He knew housing was a problem in the 1990s when he started his business, but what has become more apparent is a shift in workforce for him. He said he is no longer able to recruit as many young people out of high school and college.
Mr. Zammer said he houses around 100 workers, who obtain visas to temporarily work on Cape Cod from locations like Jamaica and Barbados.
Each employer approaches housing differently. Mr. Maffei rents entire houses from landlords, paying rent for the duration of his employees’ stay up front. This runs him between $70,000 and $80,000 each year. The process leaves him in a difficult situation, he said. If an employee chooses to quit and move out, he has already paid for the housing.
Mr. Zammer bought housing for his seasonal employees near the restaurants he owns so that the commute between work and home is no farther than a short bike ride, he said. He charges subsidized rents, like the other employers, but must maintain the properties and pay taxes himself.
“If you open a restaurant nowadays and don’t have housing... I’m not sure how you have employees seasonally,” he said. Mr. Zammer said housing his employees is not a new trend. He has provided seasonal housing in some format for the last two decades.
Ms. Colt said she has done a mix, buying and renting housing to accommodate her seasonal employees. The properties are located in Woods Hole, within walking distance of the hotels and restaurant she owns.
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Although they do not set out to provide housing to year-round employees, employers will occasionally end up using housing they have already rented or own for year-rounders. Mr. Zammer estimated that ten out of 100 employees he houses are year-round workers. Ms. Colt estimated two or three out of 25 of the employees she houses work for her year-round.
The quantity of housing varies, too. Mr. Zammer said he maintains eight properties, though some are renovated hotels, housing a larger share of workers. Mr. Maffei rents around five houses.
Although each employer approaches housing differently, they each noted that it was a necessity.
Ms. Colt said the summer business is integral to keeping her year-round workers employed. “My manager positions are supported by the seasonal economy,” she explained. If she does not have enough workers in the summer to keep up with service demand, she loses customers and money to afford the year-round, full-time staff.
Employers say a lack of affordable housing in and around Falmouth is the main reason they own or rent properties themselves and rent to employees at subsidized rates.
A local market update from the Cape Cod and Islands Association of Realtors placed the median home sale price in Falmouth in May at $469,900—$80,000 more than the median in the area for May 2018.
Rental prices are not low either, driven upward due to limited stock, particularly in the summer.
“Because of our resort and second-home community, the availability of rentals for folks who want to live here full time, or part time in the summer... it’s just extremely difficult,” said Joan Bates, an agent at Sotheby’s International Realty.
Ms. Bates said individuals often turn to Craigslist and a community housing page on the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution website to find rentals, rather than real estate agents.
Cindy Lee Caldwell, another real estate agent at Sotheby’s, said she gets 30 to 50 inquiries within a day of posting a year-round rental online. She does not get the same number of responses on vacation rentals, she added.
“When your market is up, your demand is greater,” Ms. Caldwell said. The prices are also greater. She can get upward of $1,800 a month for a three-bedroom rental.
The healthcare industry is also noticing the strain. Cape Cod Healthcare runs Falmouth Hospital and Cape Cod Hospital, as well as care facilities like JML Care Center.
Emily Schorer, senior vice president of human resources for Cape Cod Healthcare, said housing has not impacted the organization’s ability to recruit, but that she has been watching the situation closely.
“We haven’t hit the crisis stage yet but looking at the trends and the numbers it’s a very real concern for us as an organization,” Ms. Schorer said.
The number of Cape Cod Healthcare recruits that live off-Cape has increased over the past decade. Ten years ago, 14 percent of new hires lived off-Cape. This past year, 25 percent of new hires reported living off-Cape.
Finding housing requires legwork and research. That is something she and her staff have to be open about with new hires, particularly traveling nurses who are hired to provide healthcare services for the yearly influx of summer residents.
Ms. Schorer said Cape Cod Healthcare has not considered building or buying housing for employees.
Heather Harper, community design/affordable housing specialist for the Cape Cod Commission, said employer-provided housing is not unique to Falmouth. Large employers across Cape Cod are providing seasonal housing to bolster recruitment efforts.
She said it was less common to hear of employers providing housing to year-round workers. “Employers that are looking for year-round folks really try to focus their efforts on wages, but even then they have a hard time recruiting with decent wages because housing is a barrier,” Ms. Harper said.
Ms. Harper noted that increasing the overall supply and diversifying the type of units available will help address the issue.
Mr. Maffei suggested making accessory dwelling bylaws universal. Falmouth passed a bylaw in 2017, but that bylaw has not been adopted by neighboring towns like Mashpee, where Maffei Landscaping offices are located.
Ms. Colt suggested increasing public transportation to help workers commute from nearby communities with lower housing costs. Mr. Zammer said the issue requires a multifaceted approach. Town boards and housing-related nonprofits need to step in to build affordable housing, he said.
Michael Kasparian, president and CEO of the Falmouth Chamber of Commerce, said there is no single way to address the lack of workforce housing. Employer-provided housing is more of a symptom than a solution, he said, adding that the lack of workforce housing had reached a “crisis point” and any solution would require collaboration between town boards, developers, and nonprofits.
In the meantime, larger employers in Falmouth will continue to offer below market-rate rent to employees.
“It was so hard to find good housing for potential employees,” Mr. Bogosian said. He is happy to be able to provide it.