By Valerie Wencis
Boston University Statehouse Program
What happens when an idyllic seaside town prices out those who keep it running?
“A coffee shop is nice to have. But a fireman or a policeman … we are a community where the average age is well advanced compared to the state as a whole,” said Wellfleet resident Gary Sorkin. “So just someone to take care of you, so whether it’s a home health aide … in all the ways that older folks get taken care of. Those resources are becoming more and more scarce.”
Sorkin also chairs the Wellfleet Local Housing Partnership, which promotes affordable housing in the town by fundraising, building awareness, and coordinating and collaborating with existing departments and groups within the town focused on the same goals.
Wellfleet is the fastest growing town in the state, and its population increased by nearly 30% over the course of the pandemic. Sorkin said this growth is due mainly to two groups: those who decided to retire, potentially early, and move into their second or third homes on the Cape, and those who decided to take advantage of working remotely from the beach.
“But as a practical matter, we have almost no new homes. So those people are taking up existing homes, which would otherwise be available for people either to rent on an annual basis, or potentially to buy,” he said.
As a result, the median home price increased by nearly 20% between 2020 and 2021. According to the online real-estate marketplace, Zillow, the average Wellfleet house is listed at $818,000 — a figure that many of the working-class people who keep the town operational simply cannot afford.
Recent Cape Cod Commission data shows those working in retail, food and accommodation, entertainment, and construction make between $30,000-to-$50,000 annually.
“That’s why homeownership is very difficult for working folks, and we put a real emphasis on programs that could help to mitigate that goal,” Sorkin said.
Affordable housing options have been further reduced as many landlords began renting their previously year-round properties at highly elevated prices for just a few weeks over the summer, spurred by the boom in local tourism during the pandemic. Consequently, Wellfleet and other towns on the outer Cape have struggled to hire and retain essential service workers.
“There is nothing there. There is nothing there for people,” said Erin Smith, a registered nurse who lives in North Eastham. “You could look, but you’d be wasting your time, there’s absolutely nowhere to go. I mean, that’s how bad it’s gotten.”
Smith spent more than two years aggressively looking for a place to live before finding the 800-square-foot cottage she shares with her four children. The 40-year-old Cape Cod native will need to look for housing yet again since her landlord is now planning to sell the property.
“I’m always trying to think positive, and I really want to stay on the Cape with the kids, they want to stay here,” she said, “but when you look at the prices of things, it’s a little bit discouraging to say the least.”
Sorkin says the Wellfleet Local Housing Partnership has many efforts underway to address the issue of affordable housing. One such tool is collaborating with the Housing Authority’s Buy-Down program, which awards grants up to $175,000 for those eligible to use on a down payment for a home.
Sorkin lauds the generosity of sellers who have accepted the bids by those using the Buy-Down program versus those who might pay more than the home’s asking price.
For local workers who want to put down roots, such as 29-year-old Wellfleet shell fisherman Ross Scherma, the program provides hope.
“I want to throw my hat in the ring for that,” he said. “When everything blew up down here and everything was skyrocketing price-wise, I just didn’t even bother looking at that point … there’s not a lot of inventory down here, too, and that’s tough, and usually if something comes up that’s solid, someone will show up with cash in hand, that’s kind of the thing that’s going on now.”
Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro, has made it clear that funding for housing on the Cape is imperative to the community’s survival. At the end of 2021, he and fellow legislators Sen. Susan Moran, D-Falmouth, and Rep. Sarah Peake, D-Provincetown, secured a combined $4.8 million of the state’s $5 billion in ARPA funding to increase affordable housing on the Cape.
But many of the decisions that need to be made to enable the production of more housing units lie at the town level, where a “not in my backyard” attitude can prevail.
“Certainly Buy-Down programs help, Habitat for Humanity projects help, but … if we’re going to truly stem this housing crisis, if we’re not just going to become purely seasonal communities where no one is able to live year-round, the scale of what the towns are going to have to do is very significant,” Cyr said. “We’re talking about building hundreds of units in each of the towns over the next five to seven years.”
Cyr and fellow legislators are working on a number of potential solutions that would give towns more options and provide a revenue source to invest in building new housing units, such as a real estate transfer fee on real estate sales over $2 million.
He stressed that the Outer Cape is at a ‘tipping point’ and that what gets done in the next several years will determine whether its now-vibrant communities remain, or whether they will be reduced to a playground for the wealthy during the warmest months of the year.
“As Cape Codders, we are good at doing big things, we’re good at coming together as a community here on the Outer Cape to solve problems,” he said. “I’m cautiously optimistic that we can get something done, but I just can’t stress enough about how dire the circumstances … we’ve already had many, many people forced out. We’ve got to stem the bleeding, otherwise, we’re just not going to have viable year-round communities.”