Forum: Affordable Housing Is Not An Impossible Dream

By: Ed Maroney

Topics: Housing and homelessness

Panelist Katie Wibby of the Orleans Affordable Housing Committee and Bob Jones of Cape Cod Village chatted before the Feb. 22 Orleans Citizens Forum on “New Directions in Community Housing.”  ED MARONEY PHOTO

ORLEANS Talk may be cheap and housing unaffordable, but the Orleans Citizens Forum held a discussion Feb. 22 aimed at disproving those judgments.

At “New Directions in Community Housing,” five panelists talked about what they've done and plan to do to increase housing options, including where to find the money to finance their activities.

Facing an audience of about 90 at the senior center were Katie Wibby, vice chairman of the town's affordable housing committee; Cape Cod Village President Bob Jones; Habitat for Humanity/Cape Cod Executive Director Vicki Goldsmith; Orleans Housing Authority member Barry Alper; and Andrea Aldana, director of housing advocacy for Community Development Partnership.

Wibby, a staff attorney for South Coast Counties Legal Services specializing in housing and benefits work on the Cape and Islands, led off with a look at the recent Orleans Community Housing Study. While the town has done well in coming within a fraction of having 10 percent of its housing stock deemed affordable, the study pointed out a variety of unmet housing needs.

Although the number of housing units has risen, Wibby said, the majority is made up of seasonal units. More than 40 percent of all housing is now seasonal. Surprising to some, 21 percent of Orleans households make less than $25,000 a year; 42 percent are paying more than 30 percent for housing and 21 percent more than half of their income. There's also been a loss of year-round rentals from 1990 (30 percent of the housing inventory) to 21 percent today.

The study found a deficit of 274 affordable rentals in town, and a lack of home ownership opportunities as well as housing for people with special needs. The study recommends that 100 units be built in the next 10 years, 85 rentals and 15 for home ownership.

Wibby said her committee hopes town meeting will agree to restructure the town's affordable housing trust fund to allow the trust to purchase or create affordable housing without taking each proposal to town meeting. Prompt action would prevent properties slipping away in an active real estate market. The committee is always working on ways to fund the trust, including dedicating a portion of affordable housing funds from the Community Preservation Act and asking town meeting to put money in the trust annually.

The committee considers ongoing community education essential, as does Aldana. She said the Community Development Partnership created the Cape Community Housing Partnership with Housing Assistance Corporation to build public support for affordable housing by “equipping town officials, business owners and residents” with information to help them be advocates.

“The county overall needs about 25,000 units right now for people who make 60 percent or less of the area median income,” Aldana said. That includes about 5,000 on the Lower Cape, of which a little under a thousand are needed in Orleans.

While government funds subsidize housing for people who earn 60 percent or less of the area median income, said Aldana, “we really need subsidies at 80 and 120 percent (to) fill the gap for people with Cape Cod jobs.” She said it's “really important for towns to work with developers early on in the process,” and suggested that a regional housing services office combining the efforts of several towns is worth considering.

Alper agreed that “what we need is housing on a regional basis” and noted that a large affordable housing development in process in Eastham will help Orleans as well. He described the affordable housing managed by the authority, including family and special needs housing, and noted that some have “quite a waiting list.”

While maintaining the affordable housing stock in town is necessary, Alper said that supporting the people in those homes is important as well. He works with Nauset Neighbors, which helps seniors stay in their own homes by “food shopping, bringing people to medical appointments, (doing) certain household tasks.”

That personal touch is part of the spirit of Habitat for Humanity, which Goldsmith noted encourages people to put “sweat equity” into building their Habitat homes. The former director of the Orleans Housing Authority said town officials and citizens in her “old stomping grounds” have been very supportive of Habitat developments.

Goldsmith summoned the spirit of the late housing advocate Bob Murray, who challenged a group of housing organizations to each build 10 affordable homes or rentals a year. “That's how Habitat has been plodding along,” she said, “those 10 houses a year.”

She offered much practical advice on obtaining land and funding for affordable units. For a two-stage, 14-home development under way in Brewster, she said, Habitat made an offer for the site of the former Bassett's Wild Animal Farm, contingent on CPC funding. “Significant construction funding was through Housing Ministries of New England and Cape Cod Five,” she said, “and will be paid off when we sell the homes.” CPA funds can be tapped also for development and construction costs .

Cape towns have helped Habitat purchasers secure USDA mortgage funds, and the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston is another source.

Habitat, Goldsmith said, “is built on a model of avoiding significant reliance on government funding. It's neighbor helping neighbor and community funding. There's a significant amount of faith congregation money, family foundations, very significant individual donations.”

She urged towns to be creative in funding their affordable housing trusts. When Harwich had an opportunity to rent space on one of its towers to a cellular company, a housing advocate made the case for devoting the income to the housing fund. “We bought land solely from that,” Goldsmith said.

Creative thinking was important as Jones and others tried to address the needs of children on the autism spectrum who were aging out of services at 22. Their solution was Cape Cod Village, affordable housing for 15 people to be built behind Mid-Cape Home Center next to the Cape Cod Rail Trail in Orleans. The four houses were to encircle a commons building, but “we began getting calls from the people in the community with adult children with disabilities who were living at home,” Jones said. “We converted the commons notion into a community resource center, a much larger building that people with disabilities and community groups can use as a resource. It's a bridge for people living at Cape Cod Village and people from the larger community.”

With groundbreaking set for June and occupancy a year later, Jones looked back at the “crazy quilt of funding” required to build Cape Cod Village.

“I've been calling this town a town with a heart ever since I was involved in building this project,” Jones said. “We started with nothing. Parents would donate some money. We went to the town for community preservation funds. We got tremendous support from town planner George Meservey and Selectman Alan McClennen was tremendously supportive. Orleans gave us $450,000 in CPA funds over the last couple of years. Six other towns have also contributed; the total CPA money is $950,000 to this project, the only regionally funded program where multiple towns have given CPA money for housing.”

Jones credited his late friend, Gus Schumacher of Orleans, for telling him about the U.S. Department of Agriculture's community facilities grant program. The tip from Schumacher, an undersecretary of the department and former Massachusetts commissioner of food and agriculture, led to an application and a $3 million, 40-year loan at 3.25 percent interest. The state Housing and Community Development department authorized a $2 million grant and the Barnstable County HOME Consortium came through with $275,000. Almost a million dollars was raised privately.

“This is a costly kind of project,” Jones said. “We've done a lot of the initial groundwork (so) future projects can save money on design, how to fund things.”

Speaking from the audience, Jane Moroney said she appreciated the town being “extraordinarily generous” toward Habitat, Cape Cod Village, and other organizations, but observed that “as I age on, I don't see any advocate for the elderly housing for persons who cannot afford big prices.” Later, she asked, “Who's going to look out for the seniors?” as housing is built in the village center.

“In our building of advocates on the Cape,” Aldana said, “we have people who are older. There's a desire for older people to be more involved. Could you be that person?”

“I certainly would like to,” Moroney said. “I don't get around a lot, but my head still works.”