Universal Pre-K, Workforce Housing Touted as Ways to Keep Young Families in Chatham

Oct 21, 2019

Chatham, like many towns on the Cape, has a shrinking population. Younger people, specifically, are moving away. They cite high housing costs and a lack of jobs as some of the reasons they don't make Chatham a year-round home. In response, the town created the "Chatham 365 Task Force," made up largely of working families, to identify some ways to make it easier for people of all ages to live and work in town. WCAI's Kathryn Eident talked with Select Board Chairperson and task force member Shareen Davis about their new, recently-released report.

Eident What's the biggest takeaway? Do you think the task force came out with after this process?

Davis Well, I think the biggest takeaway was that it's something that we already sort of knew—that housing and jobs go hand-in-hand in the vibrancy of a community. The other takeaway was that participants themselves felt very much empowered into the process of government and the way that their town works, and that they felt enlightened and invigorated by the process itself.

Eident Talk a little bit about the makeup of the task force itself; who was serving on it?

Davis We wanted to really identify and involve people that were actually dealing with the issues themselves. So, when we name the task force, the demographics of the task force was an unusual demographic for Chatham. Most of the folks were 30- to 40-year-old range, working families. And, we also had two board of selectmen and then some community members that had some background in facilitating committees and backgrounds in the town itself on affordable housing and other matters.

Eident In reading the report, there are a suite of recommendations. Some of them have to do with finding and staying in affordable housing. And you talk about the concept of what's called a CHOP neighborhood. Can you explain that?

Davis We have one in town and we call it the CHOP housing, "Chatham Housing Opportunity Program". And it was done in the 1980s as the town developed some property, and it was an opportunity for people to buy affordable housing. So, when we said in the report that we wanted to replicate the CHOP housing scenario, perhaps we could identify land and create a more denser zoning scenario like that for year-round housing. And, I think that we're not just looking at affordable housing in the perspective of "big A". We're looking at affordable housing in the "little A", which is somewhat of workforce housing that addresses the concerns of folks that are above the median average income for Barnstable County by a larger percentage.

Eident One interesting thing I saw in the report was the recommendation that Chatham keep its elementary school. We hear so much talk about school populations kind of dwindling here on the Cape as the demographics region-wide change. And there's just talk in general about the rising costs of education.

Davis Well, as the population sort of diminishes, there is some concern among, you know, that people that have kids in town that we would lose our elementary school. And, I think if a community loses their elementary school, they lose their community. If we don't have schools in our community, then we don't have a lifeblood. We have a regional plan with Harwich—Monomoy Regional School district. It's written in our mutual agreement that we maintain our elementary schools. The fear is that at some point people will feel like it's not economically viable to continue in that sort of realm. And there was that concern. So, we wanted to make sure that people understood that culturally, it's really important for every town to have a school within its town boundaries.

Eident What is possible now to take up in that report and make it happen?

Davis Well, immediately after the presentation that the 365 Committee made to the Board of Selectmen, our board recommended that we have Monomoy Regional School District and the superintendent look at a universal pre-K program for Chatham. How that comes out, how that program looks will be dependent upon what the recommendations are.

Eident And, what about the more kind of complicated and expensive recommendations? Is the task force going to continue to kind of push for some of those?

Davis It's the responsibility of the Select Board, which is motivated at this time to move forward with, you know, building value within the community. One of the bigger things, Kathryn, that we decided to do build a sort of a strategic planning process with the town and call for community sustainability projects. Some of the things that we'd like to do is have a 365 task force that semi-annual that would review and track a lot of the projects going forward and where they're at. You know, it's up to individuals--if you really care about what you want your community to be, you have to stay on top of this. You have to advocate for them as a voter. This is not just a one-fix effort. This was a wonderful exercise in what the community wants. The important part is that people need to commit to the community from a personal perspective and move forward and participate in the process.

Eident That is Shareen Davis, Chairperson of the Chatham Board of Selectmen, Shareen, thanks so much for talking with us about the report this morning.

Davis Well, you're welcome. I'm happy to.

This conversation was lightly edited for grammar and clarity.