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HAC in the News

Brokers, bankers and officials discuss affordable-housing options at community forum

Posted on Fri, Nov 05, 2010

BREWSTER — So how has the housing/mortgage/banking/fiasco affected Cape Cod’s own housing problems? Prices are down, are homes more affordable? Well, not enough to make living easy for many Cape workers.

“Our housing costs are 10 percent higher than the rest of the state but wages are 30 percent lower so it’s simple math,” explained Abigail Chapman, housing development project manager for the Eastham-based community development partnership. “People struggle to make ends meet.”

She was speaking at a forum organized by the town of Brewster at Captains Golf course last Wednesday, which brought together real estate brokers, bankers and local officials and volunteers.

“We wanted to do an exchange of ideas and let people know what some of the opportunities and obstacles were,” said Steve Leibowitz of the Brewster Housing Partnership. “I’d also like to put in a plug for Brewster residents to join us on the partnership.”

The partnership has openings for people interested in making Brewster affordable to a range of workers.

“It’s very critical largely because the Cape cost of housing is higher, and wages are lower so service workers can’t afford to buy a place or rent a place,” said Paul Ruchinskas of the Brewster Community Preservation Committee. “We’re almost 5,000 units short of getting to the 10 percent goal (on Cape) so the need for rental is particularly critical here otherwise we will not be able to sustain our workforce.”

“The only way of keeping any of our youth is affordable housing,” declared retired banker Elliot Carr.

So what is being done? The CDP has just finished putting a dozen affordable rental units into Harwich on Thankful Chases Pathway.

“The state likes to see a cost of under $300,000 per unit, that’s their guideline,” noted Chapman. “We develop 100 percent of our units affordably, 80 percent or under the median income, that’s the threshold. Our development in Harwich was 60 percent or under. They have to income qualify and are deed restricted to have income qualified to obtain a mortgage but it’s a small price if you have a good home.”

Deed restrictions, which limit the income of renters or buyers, can trim the unit’s value.

“One of my favorite subjects is the accessory apartments for an affordable housing plan which doesn’t work in Brewster or other towns,” chimed in Paul Hush, chairman of the CPC, “mainly because of deed restrictions.”

Home and apartment owners think they’re just too much of a headache. Using such units require zoning approval, contingent upon the creation of low-income housing.

“If the homeowner increases the price beyond what it should be, he loses the privilege of doing it,” Hush pointed out. “I certainly would like to see us explore accessory housing without deed restrictions. Owners could use the extra income and most would stick to the pricing needed with deed restrictions.”

Brewster Assistant Town Administrator Jillian Douglass noted there were six deed-restricted apartments in town. She said it was possible to have an unrestricted in-law apartment.

Most developers get a comprehensive permit, which requires 25 percent of the housing to be affordable, and in return get a variance from the zoning board of appeals that allows for multi-family higher density housing.

“At least 98 percent of affordable housing is done through comprehensive permits,” Douglass opined. “We would not have affordable housing without comprehensive permits.”

There are other resources available. The Community Preservation Committee buys land for open space, historic preservation and recreation but up to 30 percent of its funds can be spent on housing.

“One of the founding reasons for the CPC was to be able to support affordable housing,” said Gael Kelleher of the Housing Assistance Corporation of Cape Cod. “But there really is not much money there to do that. For instance, in Brewster, under CPC guidelines overall it’s about $900,000 (in the bank) and $100,000 to $300,000 can go toward housing in any one year. So the only way to do anything important is to have projects that are funded by the town, HAC, CPC, and other sources so we are putting in money that can be leveraged and we’re hoping somebody can come up with projects the CPC can invest in.”

Still their cost of construction or conversion limits what impact they’ll have.
With costs running $200,000 to $300,000 per unit, that’s “not going to create a lot of action,” Kelleher conceded.

But towns have other options.

“One of the most effective ways is when towns establish a housing trust,” Leibowitz opined. “That has been pretty effective in Barnstable. Yarmouth has also used it effectively. We need a housing trust fund in this town.”

“Brewster does have a fund but it’s not a housing trust,” conceded Douglass. “It has a balance of $250.”

The housing fund was created by special act of the Legislature. A housing trust will have its own board that controls the money. Brewster’s housing fund is under the control of the selectmen.

“Everyone wants affordable housing but nobody wants it where they live,” said Ed Lewis, chairman of Brewster’s selectmen. “They think it’s great on the other side of town. A significant part of the population doesn’t understand the difference between affordable housing and subsidized housing. Affordable housing can be good for the community.”

One concern seems to be that affordable housing attracts a transient population.

“In Brewster at Belmont Park, there are 20 units of affordable housing and there have been four turnovers,” Douglass countered. “Yankee Drive has a similar rate.”

Getting a mortgage with less than the median income has become very difficult in these times. One banker said underwriting loans on Cape Cod was more difficult than on the other side of the bridge, “because typically here, people have two to three jobs or are dependent on overtime,” and if they lose a job, “we want to make sure they don’t use credit cards to tide themselves over.”

But he said there are bargain prices because of all the foreclosures and that should eliminate the NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) problem since people don’t like to see vacant homes in their neighborhood.

“We also need to identify property for affordable housing that makes sense where land is not a cost (i.e. town-owned),” Lewis said.

Many programs are available for buyers, administered through the Housing Assistance Corporation, such as funds for emergency shelter, weatherization, rental subsidies, loan aid for first-time buyers, help with downpayments and consumer education.