Confused about 'affordable' housing on Cape Cod? Here's a primer.

Cape Cod's enduring housing crisis has sparked more discussion about affordable housing.

But what is "affordable housing"? Who is it for and how is it created?

The Cape Cod Times has compiled this primer to help confused residents and newcomers better understand the key terms used in conversations about housing, the different types that are available, and more.

What is "affordable housing"?

"Affordable housing" is an umbrella term that covers many different flavors of housing.

As a technical definition, affordable housing refers to housing that has long-term restrictions on the amount of rent that can be charged, based on the income of the residents. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), housing is "affordable" if occupants pay no more than 30% of their gross income on housing, plus utilities.

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Those who pay more are considered "cost-burdened."

The term "affordable housing" also refers to housing funded by the government, rented or sold at prices that are below the typical market rate and restricted to qualifying households with limited incomes. That can include public housing and privately-owned subsidized or tax-credit developments.

It is typically targeted for households earning below 80% of the area's median income, or AMI. AMI for a family of four in Barnstable County is $108,700. So, 80% of AMI in Barnstable County for a family of four is $86,950.

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Public housing, owned and operated by local housing authorities, is subsidized on both the development and operating sides. Rents are a fixed share of tenant income, set by statute. Tenant selection for these units must by law prioritize the most vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, domestic violence victims and low-income families.

Most public housing in the country is federal and is overseen by HUD.

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Besides Massachusetts, there are only three other states in the country that also have state-funded public housing: Connecticut, New York and Hawaii.

Housing made to be affordable is also sometimes called "Capital-A affordable housing," as opposed to "naturally occurring" affordable housing, which is cheap housing available on the regular market and not financially supported by a government or nonprofit.

Private affordable housing on Cape Cod

Privately owned affordable housing is developed and owned by private development and management companies but constructed with public funding.

While development is subsidized, the operations of the development are not. Owners use area median incomes to determine rents and will identify which income bands they want to serve.

Rental assistance vouchers on Cape Cod and beyond

A rental assistance voucher is a kind of subsidy that helps to create affordable rent in the private market.

A voucher accomplishes this by allowing a tenant to pay only 30% of their income toward rent, and the voucher covers the balance of the actual market-rate rent paid directly to the landlord on behalf of the tenant.

The largest and most well-known voucher program is the federal Section 8 program, which is also called the Housing Choice Voucher Program. Those with Section 8 vouchers can live anywhere, not just in affordable housing.

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Once they are issued a Section 8 voucher, families are given up to 120 days to find their own rental housing or they can stay in their current unit if it meets the program requirements.

Eligibility is based on the family's total gross income, according to the state's Housing and Community Development website. At least 75% of all vouchers issued by a housing agency must be targeted to households whose total income does not exceed 30% of the area median income. HUD establishes income limits.

When the family moves, they take their voucher with them to their new home.

What is Chapter 40B?

Chapter 40B is one of the more well-known and controversial state statutes.

The Massachusetts law allows developers to override local zoning codes if at least 20% of the units built have long-term affordability restrictions. Once a community has reached the threshold of having 10% of its housing units classified as affordable, it has reached "safe harbor" and is no longer subject to Chapter 40-B.

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Units do not necessarily need to be newly built and could come from newly imposed deed restrictions.

None of the 15 towns on Cape Cod has reached the 10% mark.

Accessory dwelling units on Cape Cod

Accessory dwelling units, also called in-law apartments and granny flats, are extra residential units on the same lot as a stand-alone, single-family home, according to the American Planning Association. ADUs can take many forms, including detached, attached addition, or part of the existing home.

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Most towns on Cape Cod have passed bylaws to allow accessory dwelling units in their community. Housing advocates and town officials call ADUs an important tool in creating more housing units, but not the sole solution to the housing crisis.

'Missing-middle' housing on Cape Cod

"Missing middle" refers to housing that can accommodate more than a single-family home but is not a large apartment building. Typically, it can be anything from a duplex, triplex or fourplex to cottage housing and townhouses or rowhouses that blends into a residential, walkable neighborhood of mostly single-family homes.

This type of housing is "missing" because it is not built often.

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Earlier this year, the Providence architecture firm Union Studio worked with the Cape Cod Commission to research "missing-middle" housing, using Cape Cod as a case study. While such housing is not synonymous with "affordable housing," reads the report, it can help "alleviate an affordable housing shortage by increasing supply and providing a myriad of building types."

"Financing to this day has been based around these polar-opposite zoning types, making it hard to finance a small-scale multi-family home as it is still seen as undesirable within a residential context," reads the report.

Other key 'affordable housing' terms

Subsidized housing inventory is used to measure a community's stock of housing that is affordable to households at or below 80% of the area's median income.

Housing production plan: Each community has a five-year housing production plan that needs to be approved by the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development. The document guides the town or city on its housing policy and maps out how it will achieve having 10% of its housing stock classified as affordable.

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Rent control is any government mechanism that places limits on what a landlord can charge tenants, as well as other requirements outlining how landlords must operate.

Who to contact for help on Cape Cod

In the past, advocates and local officials have told the Times that they'd advise any renters to turn to reputable organizations such as Housing Assistance Corporation (508-771-5400) or the Homeless Prevention Council (508-255-9667).

For help with ADUs, check out the Lower Cape Housing & ADU Resource Center (508-290-0119), which is a partnership between the Community Development Partnership (508-240-7873) and Homeless Prevention Council.

Residents should also reach out to their local housing officials, which will have up-to-date information about new developments in their community. For those 60 and older, reach out to the local Council on Aging.

Zane Razzaq writes about housing and real estate. Reach her at Follow her on Twitter @zanerazz.

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This article originally appeared on Cape Cod Times: Want to understand 'affordable' housing on Cape Cod? Here's a primer