A housing crisis equals a labor crisis. That was the theme of the day at the recent Falmouth town huddle of about two dozen residents, community leaders and business owners.
“What we hear at the Chamber constantly from our members is they can’t hire enough people in order to meet their maximum revenue, and that’s because people can’t afford to live here,” said Michael Kasparian, CEO/president of the Falmouth Chamber of Commerce. “Everybody who works in town should have the opportunity to live in town.”
The town huddles, which have been held in three Cape towns so far, are a strategic meeting of residents who are interested in changing their town’s housing policies. The huddles are part of the Housing to Protect Cape Cod initiative – a grass roots initiative to protect and preserve the people of Cape Cod.
“Huddles are all about building awareness and education around what’s happening in a town from a housing perspective,” said the meeting’s moderator, Ann Schiffenhaus, Housing Assistance’s director of community relations and advocacy. “It’s a way to build a grassroots effort around a pro-housing advocacy group.”
Falmouth fire chef Tim Smith told huddle attendees that due to a lack of affordable and available housing, the state has had to change civil service guidelines twice in the past 10 years to allow a fire fighter to live as far as 30 miles away from their station. “This changes how we recruit and retain, as we are competing with fire stations closer to the bridge, as many firemen live off-Cape,” he said. The department has 18 open positions, and overtime pay is increasing every year, he said.
The housing shortage is also affecting the scientific community. The Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole has 270 year-round employees, along with 500 scientists, research associates and other summer staff. Although MBL owns dorms, homes, apartments and cottages, and arranges with private homeowners to rent rooms for the additional seasonal staff, 10-15% of positions aren’t filled due to lack of housing. “In a recent survey, 40-45% of post doc students, many with families, feel stressed about housing insecurity,” said Paul Speer, MBL’s chief operating officer.
Representatives from other industries shared similar stories. Carter Hunt, CEO of Falmouth Hospital, said that many of the hospital’s 800 employees live off-Cape and 70% of their traveling nurses need housing.
Peter McConarty, director of the Falmouth Department of Public Works, said that he struggles to recruit and retain employees due to a lack of housing, even though the town increased the pay scale for park staff and seasonal workers. “We have posted three times for a wastewater supervisor, and no one can find housing,” he said. “Many DPW jobs require the ability to get to work quickly in case of an emergency.”
During a public comment period, audience members floated some ideas to ease the housing crisis, including building prefab modular homes, renovating abandoned properties, rezoning summer cottages for year-round use and restricting the number of short-term rental properties.
“People need to know that their voice counts,” said Schiffenhaus. “Being part of the solution versus watching it happen is the biggest thing we’re trying to accomplish with the huddles.”’