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Housing Insecurity on Cape Cod and the Islands

by Erin Sadlowski

Abraham Maslow was a 1900s psychologist who formulated a theory that would become a well-known psychology and nursing tenet - Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. The theory is pictorially represented by a triangle. At its base, food, water, warmth and rest. Above that, safety and security. Without meeting these basic needs, no person, Maslow claimed, can self-actualize and live to their full potential.

A place to call home is an often taken-for-granted cornerstone of a secure and happy life. Those caught amid the current housing crisis on Cape Cod and the Islands have, no doubt, come to realize this. There was a crisis before COVID, and the problem has now been compounded. In 2018, Cape Cod's housing assistance program published a report entitled Housing on Cape Cod: The High Cost of Doing Nothing. In 2018, according to HAC, there was a 1% rental vacancy rate when 7% is considered healthy. The wait lists for apartment openings were years long.

A February 17, 2022 Cape Cod Times article revealed there are now some apartment complexes with wait lists that are four or five years long. In addition, the following statistic from Cape Cod and Islands Association of Realtors: in January 2020, there were 986 homes for sale in Barnstable County that cost less than $1,000,000. In January 2022, there were 88. It is becoming an all-too-common story on Cape Cod Facebook groups, like Mashpee message or Cape Cod Year Round Rentals. Families in long-term rentals, learning their landlord is selling, and they must leave, but with nowhere to go; no option to buy, no option to rent.

What has Caused the Crisis?

The United States is experiencing a housing crisis but, here on Cape, that crisis is much worse due to factors unique to the Cape and Islands. The Housing Assistance Corporation (HAC) found three main causes of the housing crisis on Cape Cod and Islands in their 2018 report.

  • Second homeowners with greater purchasing power than locals.

  • The strength of the short-term rental market, compounded by the advent of Airbnb-type transactions.

  • Overly restrictive zoning, which emphasize restrictive uses and minimum lot size.

Post-COVID factors, according to Mortgage Professionals America, include:

  • A desirable place to live a certain lifestyle year-round in a place of natural beauty, near the ocean.

  • City dwellers whose jobs became remote, selling homes in the city and buying on Cape, seeking a simpler life.

The result:

  • An unhealthy rental market with prices out of reach even for professionals earning above average salaries.

  • An inefficient market where people rent or own the wrong size or style home for their needs because of a lack of options.

  • An oversupply of short-term rentals due to investors and second homeowners intending to make money on the seasonal market.

What Resources are out There?

The following Cape Cod and Islands organizations are working to lessen the burden on renters and low to middle-income buyers:

  • The Housing Assistance Corporation (HAC) was founded in 1974 to test rental vouchers to secure housing for year-round workers on Cape Cod. Since that time, its programs have expanded. They now include initiatives for homelessness prevention, housing stabilization and home buyer empowerment. They offer counseling, education and resources to assist low- and middle-income home buyers. Individuals struggling to pay rent on Cape who have a household member who works in the disciplines of childcare/disability may qualify for THRIVE a new program designed and created by HAC. A rental subsidy is paired with required ongoing work with HAC staff through a Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Certified Housing Counseling Program with the intention of setting goals and working on financial empowerment.

  • The Barnstable County Housing Authority also has programs that address housing. They have a housing assistance program and a Rental Assistance Program (RAP). Additionally, they have programs for individuals with special needs, low-income families, handicap, veterans and elderly.

  • Groups for renters to connect with would-be roommates and available rentals exist on Facebook. They include the groups Cape Cod Rental and Roommate Finder and Cape Cod Year Round Rentals.

What are the Long-Term Solutions?

A March 19, 2022 article addressed how Barnstable County is working through the details of how to spend $41 million that will be awarded through the American Rescue Plan Act. Some of that money could potentially be allocated to navigate housing needs. Workforce challenges are prompting individual towns, like Falmouth, to come up with creative solutions to housing problems. In a June 20, 2022 article, some potential solutions for the town are discussed, such as grants to aid first-time home buyers to fund the difference between the affordable and selling prices of a home, or to help with down payments.

Programs are falling into place and solutions are on the way, but all residents of Cape Cod and the Islands can do their part to keep momentum going in the right direction by joining the effort to advocate for affordable housing now and for generations to come.

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