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Voters confront affordable housing in several Cape, Islands towns

Downtown Nantucket
CC 2.0
Downtown Nantucket

Voters at several Town Meetings are addressing the critical lack of low- and mid-priced housing stock this Spring session.

Several communities in our region and across the state want lawmakers to make a new revenue source available to them: a real-estate transfer fee. Local officials say it would allow them to preserve more attainable and affordable housing for the people who keep the region’s economy running.

Morning Edition's Kathryn Eident spoke to CAI's Patrick Flanary about the towns taking on affordable housing right now.

Kathryn Eident: Which towns have already done so this session, and which are scheduled to take it up?

Patrick Flanary: Provincetown was the first town this session to address spending for affordable housing.

Voters in April approved developing some town-owned sites — including the community center — into housing, and designated about a quarter of the town's rooms-tax revenue to the effort. That tax combines money collected from hotels and short-term rentals.

The Department of Housing says Provincetown has the highest percentage of affordable homes on the Cape, at just under 10% of the town's inventory of housing stock. Ten percent is the state-required benchmark for towns to reach. No town on the Cape and Islands has ever come this close, and Provincetown hopes to achieve that soon.

Voters at Town Meeting in Eastham and Harwich, and on Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, also said yes to expanding access to affordable housing.

Changing a town's zoning bylaws is a major way to accomplish this.

Eastham has voted to do this, which will allow some motels and hotels to be converted to year-round affordable housing, and allow for the building of duplexes to accommodate more families. Eastham will also establish a trust for affordable housing.

Harwich voters earlier this month approved the creation of a town Housing Coordinator position.

But the Islands are taking an even bigger step toward affordable housing, given the exorbitant cost of living on both Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard.

KE: Tell us about the idea of a regional housing bank, using a real-estate transfer fee a way of addressing the lack of affordable housing? This has statewide implications.

PF: At Nantucket Town Meeting, voters said yes to imposing a real-estate transfer fee to fund a housing bank, which would require a homebuyer to pay a percentage of a sale over one million dollars. Voters also approved the requirement to register short-term — or vacation — rentals. They tabled regulations that would have limited offering short-term rentals to year-round residents.

Martha's Vineyard is losing hundreds of available homes to short-term rentals. And this week, Aquinnah was the sixth town on the Vineyard to support a housing bank. The housing bank would be able to buy and preserve property for middle- and low-income buyers, and create loan and grant programs for renters and prospective homeowners — like teachers, firefighters, and doctors, who are being priced out of the market.

This means the Vineyard and Nantucket now have leverage to see this through, as it will go to the State Legislature for approval.

Lawmakers in the past have rejected this idea of creating a regional housing bank using transfer fees it collects. But island towns, and places like Boston, are hoping the state will finally say yes to homebuyers paying a transfer fee on sales over a certain dollar amount.

Several bills on Beacon Hill would potentially allow towns in Massachusetts to impose a transfer fee.

But there's a way to go at the state level before anything can happen, despite the overwhelming support on Martha's Vineyard and elsewhere around the state.

KE: Looking ahead to this weekend, Chatham Town Meeting voters will also consider a property transfer fee.

PF: Chatham is looking to do several things, including creating the position of an Affordable Housing Coordinator, and establishing a housing trust for affordable housing.

Chatham is also looking at potentially imposing a transfer fee on certain homebuyers, but the numbers look much different: The proposal there is to charge a buyer a fee that's one-half percent of the sale price over $2 million.

Chatham's own Town Warrant acknowledges that the town has historically had limited success with developing affordable housing, because, in the town's words, there is more financial incentive to build "high-end housing."

We're now at a point on the Cape where there are fewer than 150 homes available for sale under $1 million.

And we're seeing widespread support — at least on the local level — to ensure that we keep families living and working here on the Cape and Islands.

Kathryn Eident was the Morning Edition Host and Senior Producer of News until November 2022.
Patrick Flanary is a dad, journalist, and host of Morning Edition.