Why are we such slaves to brick and mortar?
There’s a Capewide consensus that we need housing for our workers, our families and our elders. So we should build some quickly. Those who haven’t already purchased a place to live are in danger of not being able to live here at all.
As in the 1980s, there is a bidding war for places to live. People living in the same rental for decades find themselves out on the street when the property is sold. They are stable, employed, long-term residents, and often families. But in the post-COVID rush by the wealthy to purchase a bolthole where they can work remotely if things go south again, the people who keep the Cape running day-to-day are being outbid and displaced.
In my town, there is an ongoing drumbeat about how affordable and subsidized housing are always targeted in certain neighborhoods where there is already a lot of such housing. Why is Dennis Port always where workforce, affordable and subsidized housing is proposed? What about other areas of town, like East Dennis on the older, historic north side? Why aren’t they doing their fair share?
But there is a certain schizophrenia about these complaints. For instance, in 2019, Town Meeting voted unanimously to support purchasing 14 acres of land on Route 6A. It helped fund the $800,000 purchase, and the land was added to the Dennis Land Conservation Trust. The acreage supports plants and animals like diamondback terrapins, and borders Tobey Farm and Chase Garden Creek. But putting even a few units of affordable housing, perhaps along the roadway between the farm and the CapeAbilities property, was never even floated as an idea.
These purchases stress that land must be as pristine as possible. Setting aside the concept that scarcity increases value, even for land, every such purchase guarantees that there will be no housing, so if there is to be any it must be elsewhere. And because Dennis Port was long ago the commercial hub of the town, it is already built upon, so locating more housing there makes economic and environmental sense.
But why do we keep having to build at all?
We could allow in-law apartments to be rented legally to people not related to the homeowners, and stop trying to engineer official affordable units — we need the housing stock, period. We could break down and admit that one- and two-acre zoning is a sham — rich people will always have enough money to buy land they want.
In the town of Harwich, 51 percent of the residential housing value is second homes. Imagine the pressure to try to get a 10 percent townwide affordable housing quota when less than half the residential value is owner-occupied.
Forty years ago, empty second homes were rented for winter at reduced rates. Now many stand empty, due to the difficulty of evicting a person — even if they are vandals or cease to pay rent — due to tenant’s rights laws.
While tenancy at will is established in a few weeks, it can take literally years and expensive litigation to get a tenant out, even if the property is sold. So, rather than risk it, perpetual online one-week rentals pay the mortgage on the bolthole house. Many property owners refuse to rent to responsible tenants, and as a result, we have empty three-bedroom houses while families of five live in a single room with a hot plate.
What could we do? What if nonprofits were the lessees, and oversaw the properties? As principal tenants, they would bear all expense for damages and responsibility for any eviction, if needed, for anyone they placed there. Such a program could create places for locals to live while owners kept the appreciation on their investment.
Community Preservation Act monies can be used as a rent-subsidy program, as is done on Martha’s Vineyard, where a family gets a fixed amount for a period of time if they are employed in a local, private-sector business or have a child in the school system, to give them breathing room to save for a down payment.
We could do more to remodel empty commercial buildings, like K-Mart in Hyannis, instead of waiting for another national franchise to move in and undercut our local businesses.
Let’s stop thinking only in terms of expensive construction and think more about constructing alternatives.
This article originally appeared on Cape Cod Times: use community preservation act funds to help families pay for housing