So Cape Cod thinks it has an affordable housing problem? |

So Cape Cod thinks it has an affordable housing problem?

Allyn Harvey

To Aspenites – who live in a market where a fixer-upper might be priced “reasonably” at just over $1 million – the median price of a home on Cape Cod probably looks like a hell of a deal.

But to the residents of the Massachusetts resort and fishing community, $187,000 to own a house or $750 a month to rent an apartment looks and feels like a lot of money. So much so, in fact, that folks there are trying to find solutions to their very own affordable housing crisis.

And one place they’re looking to for answers is Aspen, where “affordable housing” has been a part of the local vocabulary for more than two decades.

Aspen’s struggles and solutions involving the housing problem were featured in the final installment of a five-part series published last month by the Cape Cod Times. And the cast of characters it uses to portray the situation here are a familiar bunch – Mick Ireland, Larry Winnerman, Michael Kinsley and Jim Curtis.

County Commissioner Ireland told the paper’s reporter that the formula to keep a year-round population of workers in a resort community is simple: “Tax, build – or say goodbye.”

The story briefly recounted Ireland’s recall battles, and pointed out that his opponents have labeled him “rude” and “offensive” for his tough stands on affordable housing. “There is no way to do it without public money,” Ireland said. “The free market won’t do it,” and changing zoning laws cannot change enough.

“He’s controversial, but most voters and politicians back him in the election booth,” reporter K.C. Meyers wrote of Ireland. “In short, Aspen has the political will to solve its affordable-housing problem.”

(What Meyers fails to mention is that those labels have been assigned to Ireland every time he speaks up on any number of issues, including transportation and house size caps.)

The series, written by Meyers and other Cape Cod Times reporters, begins with an overview of the problem there.

The cost of housing is increasing much faster than wages. More than 1,000 long-term rental units have been lost in recent years in Barnstable County, even as demand for rental units grows with the area’s population and its popularity as a destination resort. Labor shortages are forcing up wages, eroding the quality of service and requiring employers to consider housing subsidies and other incentives to keep or attract workers.

And, one article points out, it’s not just the poor being forced out of house and home these days – it’s the middle class. Familiar stuff to locals here who have been forced to find a place to live on short notice.

The philosophical struggle the various communities on Cape Cod are going through now is also familiar. Aside from the large amount of opposition to the very idea of a broad-based and fully-funded subsidized housing program, elected officials there are also wondering how to pay for it all.

Curtis, a planning consultant in Aspen, said that elected officials here have long shown the political fortitude necessary to pay the large sums needed to either build new units or convert existing free-market housing to affordable housing.

The article credits what appears to be this area’s prescience on the need for affordable housing to the people who moved here in the early 1970s – people like Curtis and Kinsley, one of three county commissioners in the mid-1970s who downzoned the entire county and established the growth management system.

“It all began in 1974, when the progressives – the well-educated, young hippies who moved to Aspen – took over political office from the ranchers,” the story goes.

It credits those Young Turks with spawning the environmental consciousness that “over the objections of lawyers and private property owners” led to growth management and the first steps toward creating an affordable housing program. And the article credits later generations of political leadership for convincing voters to pass a real estate transfer tax in Aspen and the day care/housing sales tax, both of which are used to subsidize housing.

“What the community is trying to do is create a critical mass of permanent residents so that we have a functioning community versus the second-home owner,” Curtis is quoted as saying in the article. “That’s the public policy that guides affordable housing now.”

For a local willing to speak out against the affordable housing program here, Meyers turned to Larry Winnerman, one of the leaders of last summer’s effort to recall Ireland from office.

“It’s kind of like welfare,” he said.

Crystal-clean air, breathtaking views and a glamorous address come at a high price because they are worth it, Winnerman told Meyers. And yes, school administrators and even the hospital CEO can’t afford to own homes.

“But, hey, they get to live in one of most beautiful places in the world,” Winnerman said. “The downside is, you don’t get to own a house.”

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