How to speak up about Cape Cod housing needs. Training and support are available.
HYANNIS — As the CEO and president of Latham Centers, Anne McManus sees the housing crisis on Cape Cod every day.
A top drama teacher is leaving the 53-year-old organization, which serves developmentally and intellectually disabled children and adults, because she cannot afford to stay on Cape Cod. One assistant is homeless, living with friends.
And 32% of the money her staff makes goes into housing.
"I hear stories every day," McManus said.
So, she's running for Sandwich Planning Board. A self-described introvert, she said, the decision was daunting and required collecting nomination signatures from residents.
"I had to put some skin in the game," McManus said.
On Thursday evening, McManus was one of about 12 attending a session training residents on how to speak up on housing. Hosted by Housing Assistance Corporation and Leadership Cape Cod, the group practiced how to deliver successful public comment.
The ultimate goal is to get people comfortable with speaking in support of housing.
When making your pitch, what's the best way to get your point across?
Several key elements make up the anatomy of an effective public comment, said Amanda Bebrin, a Brewster Planning Board member who guided the session for Leadership Cape Cod. Keeping comments concise — a minute or less — and tailored to a specific topic is ideal, she said, and drawing in relevant data points and highlighting the human element will strengthen the point.
And saying "thank you for your time" can't hurt, Bebrin said.
"Your particular perspective is absolutely important," Bebrin told attendees. "What we want to do is package it in a way that is effective, so whatever board or committee you're in front of not just wants to listen but finds it really compelling and actionable."
Attendees scripted and rehearsed a public comment calling for multi-family units by-right or accessory dwelling units by-right. One person recounted they were overwhelmed as a realtor, trying to help people find suitable and affordable housing. Another said they’ve seen local families resorting to living in unsafe conditions due to the housing crunch.
Certain voices dominate the Mass. housing conversation
White male homeowners dominate local boards in Massachusetts that make consequential decisions about land use and housing, a Boston University study of 22 municipalities − including Barnstable − found last year. For instance, about two-thirds of members are homeowners, while most voters in the community are not.
Traditional public meetings also amplified those same voices, according to the research.
Katherine Levine Einstein, a study co-author, said it means conversations can be skewed, because homeowners may be more likely to oppose new housing construction.
“We have a lot of evidence in the social sciences that your characteristics as an individual understandably shape the way you view the world and the way you view policy," said Einstein, an associate professor of political science at Boston University. "If you have recently been looking for a new rental unit, you probably have a much clearer sense of how much housing costs in Massachusetts relative to someone who's been in a home for 40 years."
Interminable board meetings set up barrier for renters, people of color
As many zoning or Planning Board meetings stretch for hours, a major barrier to entering the conversation is time. Renters, younger people, and people of color are less likely to be available to attend public meetings, she said.
But another factor that can keep more diverse voices out of the room is “whether you think your voice will matter when you attend,” said Einstein.
“There seems to be a real bias at these meetings in favor of hearing from the voices of long-time residents and homeowners. Anyone who's attended one of these meetings can think at the top of their heads of people introducing themselves by saying, ‘I have been a homeowner here for 35 years and here’s why I think this development does not fit the character of this neighborhood,’” said Einstein.
At the close of the meeting, Bebrin urged attendees to visit their town website and sign up to receive agendas from their Select Board, Planning Board, or housing trust. Then, be prepared to speak up when a housing topic surfaces.
On April 6 at the Barnstable County Complex, Leadership Cape Cod will host a meeting as part of its Take Your Seat effort, which intends to help people step into local government roles.
Dennis Select Board Vice Chairman John Terrio attended the session on Thursday and called the idea "new and something we're excited about." For the most part, familiar faces speak at public comment in his town, but lately new faces have cropped up.
"Everybody knows we need housing," he said.
During the meeting, he gave a word of advice to the blossoming housing advocates.
"They're still people in town whose families came on the Mayflower and that's the way they want it to be," Terrio said. "Be prepared that it's going to be a battle."
Zane Razzaq writes about housing and real estate. Reach her at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @zanerazz.
Gain access to premium Cape Cod Times content by subscribing.
This article originally appeared on Cape Cod Times: Learn how to talk to Cape Cod officials about region's housing needs