Cape Housing Plan Is Studied on the Island

By MANDY LOCKE

Island towns may be ready to learn a few lessons from a cousin across Nantucket Sound.

Two years ago, the town of Barnstable invited year-round residents who were hiding illegal apartments in basements, attics and in the backs of their houses to take advantage of town resources to get such residences up to code. The town offered a detailed plan to comply with local ordinances and a rehabilitation loan to swallow the cost of necessary upgrades.

The hitch: the owners had to offer the apartment to a local family or individual earning less than 80 per cent of the town's median income.

"We essentially accomplish two things at once," said Kevin Shea, Barnstable's director of community and economic development. "We create affordable housing and make illegal apartments safe."

Since the town adopted the amnesty regulations two years ago, 45 affordable units have been created. Under Chapter 40B, if 10 per cent of a town's housing stock is affordable, a denial of a project that would add additional such housing cannot be appealed to the state housing appeals committee.

Barnstable is nearly halfway toward the goal of 10 per cent - a feat town officials attribute to aggressive planning.

"We've been working to compensate for the surges of market-rate houses through the 1980s. Some years it spiked beyond 220 building permits," Mr. Shea said.

Barnstable's amnesty program has attracted attention from local planners across the nation, as far away as Hawaii and as close to home as the Island.

Mr. Shea and amnesty program coordinator Paulette Theresa-McAuliffe will travel to the Vineyard Thursday for a two-hour workshop for local officials to learn more about the mechanics of their innovative program. The workshop is sponsored by the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority and will begin at 10 a.m.

The amnesty program eliminates the awkward situation of building inspectors seeing an illegal apartment but being reticent to condemn it, knowing that a town resident will be put out in the street.

"It gives building inspectors an alternative," said Philippe Jordi, executive director of the housing authority. "It's a carrot-and-stick approach. It allows building inspectors to say ‘here's how we can help.'"

In Barnstable, an inspector from the housing authority makes a visit to the applicant's home along with Ms. Theresa-McAuliffe to complete a checklist of necessary repairs to get the accessory apartment up to code. The town then reviews the request to have an accessory apartment, grants a permit and inspects progress on the work. An affordability covenant is then attached to the house deed.

Residents may also apply for a loan for the cost of repairs. After 15 years of renting the accessory apartment affordably - right now, $848 per month for a one-bedroom apartment and $1,018 for a two-bedroom apartment - the loan is forgiven in total.

Currently, the regional housing authority offers rehabilitation loans for Island residents wanting to upgrade accessory apartments for low-income, year-round tenants. The loan is essentially paid back through rent subsidy to the tenant.

Mr. Jordi said if Island towns adopted a similar amnesty program, residents could dip into a $650,000 grant secured by the town of Oak Bluffs and the county for home rehabilitation projects.

"Basically, at no cost to the taxpayers, we'd be creating affordable housing that matches existing neighborhoods," Mr. Jordi said.

Local planners on the Cape and Island are aware of the affordable housing crisis plaguing southeastern Massachusetts. According to a needs assessment commissioned by the Island Affordable Housing Fund last fall, about a quarter of Island renters shuffle from summer rental to winter rental every year. At least half of the renters, and nearly all of those earning less than $35,000 a year, pay more than 35 per cent of their income in rent.

But local officials also understand that the high cost of living makes it difficult for even homeowners to squeeze by.

"Many families rely on this rental income to make it in Barnstable," Mr. Shea said.

In most cases, Mr. Shea said, the accessory apartments need only a few smoke detectors or a board of health approval for the home septic system to accommodate another bedroom in order to be legally inhabitable.

Finding a relatively effortless way to increase the town's affordable housing stock is particularly appealing for communities watching large-scale Chapter 40B developments invade their communities. In the town of Barnstable, Mr. Shea said, one 168-unit 40B development and another 210-unit 40B development are in the pipeline.

"All it's doing, when it comes down to it, is saying we want friendly 40Bs and we are willing to expedite the process of creating affordable housing to ensure that," Mr. Jordi said.

Aquinnah is the only Island town to exceed its 10 per cent affordable housing goal. Only one-half of one per cent of Edgartown's 1,718 homes are counted as affordable - inhabited by residents earning less than 80 per cent of the median income. Both Oak Bluffs and Tisbury have a little over three per cent of their year-round stocks counted as affordable. West Tisbury has less than one-half per cent, and Chilmark none.

The amnesty program proved so successful in Barnstable that the town council and voters will be asked to extend the program to include construction of accessory apartments onto existing homes, barns and garages.

But Barnstable's success, Mr. Shea said, is a result of much intentional planning - an assessment with which the state agrees.

The state housing appeals committee Wednesday upheld the town's denial of a 32-unit project largely because the town adopted in 1997 an affordable housing plan and has been working aggressively toward its goals of developing low and moderate-income housing for residents. The town rejected the project four years ago because of potential environmental hazards from the project on the harbor.

"The key for our town was approving a town-wide affordable housing plan. It helped the town really focus. We now have a living, breathing plan for Barnstable," he said.