Housing affordability affects the very foundation of every family. Without safe, year round housing, there is no stable base on which to build family structure. For those of us fortunate enough to not have to worry so much about the roller coaster of summer rentals, escalating rents, and sudden landlord surprises, housing supply and affordability issues may just feel like headlines that don’t have a direct effect on us….but housing affects us all, indirectly or directly. When we open our eyes and look around us, we can easily see the effects of the housing crisis. Think about the restaurants that all have help wanted signs out and that have reduced schedules due to staffing issues. We have all experienced service situations where employee shortages limit businesses in what they can offer. This goes from landscaping to laundries, to healthcare to municipalities and public safety staffing. Everyone feels the bite of a very tight housing market.
An alarming statistic just in from the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce is that close to 50% of our workforce on Cape Cod no longer lives on Cape Cod because of the cost or the availability of housing here.
Think of the costs of commuting- time spent getting on and off Cape, extra traffic on our bridges and roadways, $3.50 per gallon gasoline and spending an hour each way of sitting in traffic. My wife calls the daily procession up and down Rte 6 “the Trade Parade”. All that commuting is taxing our roadway capacity….daily. The factors contributing to spiraling costs and limited availability are mostly our own doing.
- In the 15 years since the Great Recession of 2008, we have vastly under built new housing. COVID 19 jumpstarted a demand for housing that we hadn’t seen in years and the supply simply has not kept up with the demand.
- Zoning has been pushing affordability farther and farther away. NIMBYism and measures such as 2 acre minimum lot size town wide in towns like Barnstable just drive prices higher. Simple relief measures such as allowing accessory dwelling units (ADU’s) have been way too slow to be adopted. We zoned them out of existence 30 years ago, when they had been a by right part of starter housing for centuries.
- Housing density has been vilified, but adding supply to any commodity is how we keep pricing in control. Whether vertical density (adding more stories) or horizontal density (allowing more dwelling units per acre), there are places in every town where density can make sense, where sewer systems can support added housing units. What ever happened to duplexes and triplexes? They are tremendously efficient in getting young homeowners started, in housing workers, and in rounding out our housing supply. Single family homes on large lots simply price out a large segment of the population, not only the young first time buyers , but also retirees living on a fixed income. Not addressing our sewage challenges (or should we say opportunities) forces homeowners to install very costly alternative nitrogen mitigating septic systems that can run $30,000- $50,000. Cape Cod has just over 4% of the state’s population but 38% of the state’s Title 5 septic systems.
- Short term rentals have taken a large number of year round rental units off the market for people who need permanent housing. We need to incent landlords to leave their units in the year round market to boost the supply of available rentals, for the health of our year round economy
We need to support organizations like Housing Assistance Corporation and Habitat for Humanity that create affordable housing and raise awareness about the housing imbalance. We should listen to builders to understand the obstacles limiting housing supply and affordability. It is important to educate our communities that housing affordability requires action, not just words. The imbalance in housing puts our communities at risk, as seen in the statistics that almost 50% of Cape Cod's workforce no longer lives there and almost 50% of the land is protected from development.
It doesn’t take being a demographer, an engineer, or a city planner to wonder what the right, healthy ratio those numbers should be to make a sustainable future for Cape Cod. The future is up to us. As the sign on my dentist’s office wall says, “Ignore your teeth… they’ll go away.” Let’s not leave things to chance!