In the 12-month period ending June 30 of this year, Housing Assistance received 529 calls from Cape residents who said their landlord was selling their unit and they would need to find new housing, according to Cassi Danzl, Housing Assistance chief operating officer.
The income level of those calling has also been rising. Recent data shows households making a combined $200,000 are struggling to rent or buy on Cape Cod.
“I’ve been in this business for about 30 years, and this is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” said Liz Belcher, information and client services manager at Housing Assistance. “There’s always been a lack of housing, but it’s never been this bad.
“Folks who can afford to pay rent still can’t find a place.”Liz Belcher, Housing Assistance Corporation
“It’s a sellers’ market, and people are selling their units instead of renting. That’s been one of the major driving forces in the lack of affordable, year-round housing. But now, it’s just a lack of year-round housing at all, affordable or otherwise. Folks who can afford to pay rent still can’t find a place. Vacant apartments are so few and far between that we’re seeing droves of people who can’t find a place to live, irrespective of their income.”
Born in Brazil, Marcia Lewis moved to Cape Cod when was 23 and lived here for nearly 22 years – until she lost her rental and moved from Centerville to North Attleboro.
Lewis, an administrative assistant at Barnstable High School, is the mother of two daughters.
“I just couldn’t find anything that I could afford, and to this day I’m looking,” she said. “Rents on the Cape are outrageous. When I found this apartment in North Attleboro, it was kind of a desperate move. My daughters’ dad died a few years ago, so I don’t have any help. Everything’s on my shoulders.”
Belcher’s team does what they can to provide clients with resources.
“There are people who live in their cars, not because they can’t afford the rent but because they can’t find an empty apartment.”
Marcia Lewis and her daughters Sophia and Samantha
Resources that used to be helpful, such as a list of realtors or large landlords no longer bear fruit with such a tight supply. In years past, housing counselors would ask clients if moving to New Bedford or Fall River was an option.
“It was cheaper and there was a lot more housing, but that’s no longer the case,” continued Belcher. “It is cheaper, but not by much, and the units have been filled because that’s where everybody went when they couldn’t find a place to live on the Cape. It’s as close as they could get and still commute to a job they were trying to keep on the Cape.”
Indeed, Susan Mazzarella, the CEO of Catholic Social Services, which operates shelters in Southeastern Massachusetts as well as Hyannis, is seeing waves of displacement on the south coast, too. “Three-deckers which were once naturally affordable to New Bedford and Fall River families are being sold and redeveloped at a higher price point. But without more overall inventory, that means people with roots going back generations in Southeastern Mass are being forced out. New Bedford and Fall River aren’t viable alternatives for Cape Codders forced out of their homes any more than it’s sustainable for locals.”
Belcher said it was the spring of 2021 when the pandemic accelerated the existing housing shortage reaching a new crisis point. “About a year after COVID shut down everything was when it became clear that there was nothing out there,” she said.
The situation is emotionally draining for her team, she said.
“It’s defeating to have to continually say, ‘There’s nothing I can do for you immediately. You can get on this waiting list, but right now there’s not an immediate solution to your problem.’ It’s obviously tough for other people who have to hear it, but to have to say that all day long, day in and day out, is hard. It’s just the same every day.”
For Housing Assistance CEO Alisa Magnotta, it’s unacceptable for a housing nonprofit to be unable to provide housing solutions. “It’s really made us look harder at the causes and solutions to the underlying shortage.”
Faces of the housing shortage
Meaghan Mort, with her husband John Marcantonio, their son Ollie Marcantonio and their dog Kisses
Uncertainty about the future of your housing is emotionally draining, said Meaghan Mort, an LPN who had been living with her family in a Marstons Mills rental home for three years when she got a big shock.
“I was scrolling Facebook one day and found out our home was for sale,” she said. “That was news to me. That was in the spring and our lease ends next January. So, we’ve been looking since, and there’s just nothing. I mean, it took us two years to find this place.”
Searching for a house on Cape Cod right now is ‘hopeless and depressing,” she said.
“The lowest we found was $2,200, including utilities, for a two-bedroom basement apartment. A hundred other people were going for it. They want really good credit and ours is fair.
“Another one was $2,600 plus utilities. It’s at the point where we’re working for basically nothing if we’re giving up more than $3,000 a month for rent, which is what it would be with utilities.”
She said she knows one street where 11 RVs are hooked up to electric and water supplies. “It’s desperate times when people are forced to live in campers.”
Lisa Goodrich, a writer and editor, lived with her family in the same rental in Brewster for 14 years. Even in the early days of the pandemic, it was idyllic, she said. “It was the kind of street where we’d stand outside each other’s houses and bang pots and pans and sing happy birthday.”
“I had done a lot of volunteer work, so I had a lot of contacts,” she said. “I sent out something to every single person I could think of. ‘Our house is being sold. If you hear of anything, let us know.’ There was a whole little cluster of people looking for us.”
Then her landlord told her the house was going to be sold.
In three months, she unearthed only five or six possibilities. “Two of those literally doubled our rent, and we just could not do that,” she said.
She looked at one in Foxborough that was in total disrepair – yet 30 people were waiting to look at it. “They were from everywhere from the Cape and the South Shore up to Boston. The only thing we had in common was how miserable our predicament was.”
“The Cape was the only place I ever wanted to live since I was a little kid. I feel like I got voted off the island.”–Lisa Goodrich
Through a friend of a friend, she eventually found a rental in the western Massachusetts town of Blandford.
“The location doesn’t work at all, but the space works, and the rent worked, and we could have our pets, so we grabbed it.
“It’s forced this domino effect. Literally everything in our lives has had to shift. You don’t think about it when you’re looking for housing, but all your doctors have to shift. Your dentist has to shift. Your work has to shift.”
“I’m really clear that we are not the only people this has happened to, and in many ways, we were fortunate. I have a friend in her 80s who’d been on the Cape since she was 3 years old and now, she’s staying in Florida with her sister because she could not find housing. I know of two young adults living in vans on the Cape because their families lost housing. They have nowhere else to go. I know of pastors and librarians whose rents doubled, and they’re commuting from off the Cape.
“It caused enormous grief. The Cape was the only place I ever wanted to live since I was a little kid. I feel like I got voted off the island.”
Lewis, the mother who moved her family to North Attleboro, would love to return to Cape Cod.
“I would do it in a heartbeat. I would do it today if someone said, ‘Hey, Marcia, I have a house that you can afford.’ It’s very different from any other place in Massachusetts or any other place that I’ve been. It’s beautiful and it’s comfortable. It feels like home.
“I hope something can be done, because I see people moving away from the Cape all the time because just like me, they can’t find a place.”
Homeownership out of reach
Two years ago, 1,045 houses on Cape Cod were for sale for under $1 million; in March 2022, that number had plunged to 149, according to the Cape Cod & Islands Association of Realtors (see chart).
“Even more than housing prices, what worries me and what people don’t understand is what the pandemic era has done is stripped our housing supply,” Ryan Castle, chief executive officer of the Cape Cod & Islands Association of REALTORS. “We went from a little over 2,000 homes for sale, pre-pandemic and even that was an all-time low on the Cape. We were seeing supply shortages, pre-pandemic. Now, in the bottom of the inventory levels, we got down to about 300 homes for sale on the market. We’re hovering around 600 now. I don’t think people understand that we’re at a crisis level of inventory.”
This creates three problems, explained Magnotta.
Empty nesters who would like to sell their homes have nowhere to downsize to. This leads to a mismatch of housing need. “If you’re only using one out of three or four bedrooms, that’s inefficient. That home could go to a growing family, but the homeowner can’t get out of it because they can’t find anything smaller. What new one or -two-bedroom units do come on the market have to go through such an expensive permitting and building process, the price doesn’t leave them with the expected profit they planned to use for retirement. So the choice is to stay put or move off-Cape.”
Homeowners who do sell have hundreds of interested buyers. “You see an open house for a home priced under $500,000 and there’s a line down the street of people waiting to get in,” said Magnotta. For tenants, they often find the buyer of their home is a second-homebuyer, further decreasing the supply of rentals.
“Most realtors do what they do not to sell million-dollar houses, but because they believe in the value of home ownership,” said Castle. “If you ask any realtor, their most rewarding client has always been helping a buyer buy their first home or helping someone who’s worked hard and saved up get into that home and create a stable house for their family. Those are the rewarding times for our members. Our members understand the value and the joy that come with home ownership more than anyone.” But those times are increasingly rare.
First-time homebuyers relying on loans are consistently outbid by second-home buyers who pay cash, pay $40,000 to $50,000 over asking price and waive contingencies like inspections. “The American dream of homeownership is becoming more and more of a pipe dream for those who don’t already own or stand to inherit property,” said Magnotta.
A housing shortage equals a workforce shortage
Beth Markus, co-founder and business manager of Cape Cod Beer
“Help wanted – apply only if you already live on Cape Cod.”
Beth Marcus, co-founder and business manager of Cape Cod Beer, hasn’t posted a sign like that yet, but it could happen.
“We had a great lead brewer who was going to move down from Maine. He couldn’t find a place to rent, so he declined the job,” she said. “It’s been so bad in the last five years that it’s hard to hire anybody who’s not from here.”
After extensively searching for a place to live, another job candidate told her, ‘People have been showing me literally utility closets that they’ve turned into apartments.’ There was nothing,” she said.
Fortunately, that story had an increasingly rare happy ending. Marcus posted on Facebook on his behalf and found someone who was moving off-Cape and was able to sublet to the new brewery employee, who eventually signed his own lease for the apartment. But Marcus stressed that businesses can’t plan on luck when it comes to hiring.
“The bottom line is that unless you know somebody, it’s almost impossible to find a place,” she said. “When you’re trying to hire a production manager or an operations manager, you really want somebody with some experience, but how do you move somebody like that here and expect them to find a place to live?”
That’s led to a shift in Cape Cod Beer’s business model. Instead of trying to hire people with experience, they train existing employees to become professional brewers. The head brewer started as a summer retail employee many years ago.
“Part of the problem is that nobody wants affordable housing in their neighborhood, but they don’t really understand that affordable housing is workforce housing. If the average one-bedroom apartment is $2,000, how do workers manage that?”
There’s one question Ken Taber gets asked by every potential employee: “Where am I going to live?”
“During the interviewing process, it always comes up,” said Taber, president and CEO of Hole in One, Inc., which operates the Hole in One Bakery and Coffee Shop in Eastham, the Hole in One Breakfast & Lunch in Orleans and the Fairway Restaurant & Pizzeria in Eastham.
“Housing is the number one concern,” he said. “If they do find a place, can they afford the rent? Can they sustain themselves? For them to justify the move, it comes back to what they can find based on what they can afford.”
More and more, Taber finds that he’s become a housing coordinator on top of his other duties. For example, he puts up notes at his businesses, asking local customers to rent a spare room to one or two of his employees.
“I tell then we’re hiring good people and all they want to do is work, so the chances are, you won’t see them that often. They just need a pillow to put their head on. So not only am I offering employment and training people and putting them in a position to earn an income, but I’m also working with the folks who are hosting them.
“If those resources dried up, where do I go? My options are very, very limited, if anything. What do I do? If I lose four people, you just work with what you have. We have to cross-train employees, moving employees from a job at one restaurant to a different job at a different restaurant. That’s where I spend most of my time.”
A board member of the Orleans Chamber of Commerce, Taber said every Cape business owner he talks to has employees who are struggling to find housing.
“The people who are moving here want the restaurants, the medical services, a good police and fire department, but that’s going to become difficult,” he said. “Their life will be impacted based on whether all these other industries can find employees.”
“There’s a direct nexus between housing and labor supply that my members are most concerned about,” said Paul Niedzwiecki, chief executive officer of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. “The labor supply shortage is in every industry at every level is unprecedented.
“For example, Cape Cod Community College has great programs for dental hygienists and nurses. If they could increase the capacity of their programs, local employers would hire everyone that they graduate, but they’re limited by faculty. They can’t bring people here to teach because of the cost of housing. Everywhere you look, the housing market is impacting, in a very negative way, the labor supply situation on Cape Cod.”
Whether it’s in conversation with neighbors, friends or local business owners, housing is the most talked about topic, said Kristen Roberts, whose family owns and operates Truro Vineyards.
“It’s a problem that stretches far beyond Truro or any of our businesses,” she said. “Anybody who owns a business on the Outer Cape has housing issues. It’s a market that is too expensive.
“Owners are renting weekly instead of seasonally, or weekly instead of year-round. You can’t blame them because that’s what the money is, and their mortgage rates are higher and houses are more expensive, and so it’s just a vicious cycle.”
Roberts has felt the effect in her own business.
“There won’t be much of a town if there aren’t any businesses that are open.”–Kristen Roberts, Truro Vineyards
Dave and Kristen Roberts, owners of Truro Vineyards
“We’ve had employees who were able to find housing one year and wanted to come back and work the next year but couldn’t because they didn’t have any place to live. People who want to rent or buy a home can’t and end up moving off Cape because it’s cheaper and finding jobs that are closer to where they live.
“Every piece of undeveloped land that pops up, people worry about density and people worry about the rural nature of the town, but the fact remains there won’t be much of a town if there aren’t any businesses that are open. There has to be a balance.”
Chris Flanagan, executive officer of the Homebuilders and Remodelers Association of Cape Cod, has seen a striking change in recent years as housing prices climbed and housing inventory shrank.
“What we’ve noticed is that a lot of people retire, but there isn’t that younger generation that’s following them to replace them. A lot of people have aged out and there hasn’t been a newer workforce to replace them. There are very few people who work in the skilled trades that are able to live here.”
A shortage of employees meant Cape Quality Plumbing & Heating in Wellfleet refused to take on new customers this summer and couldn’t handle weekend emergencies for existing customers.
Before the pandemic, the company had 11 employees. Now they’re down to three licensed plumbers, one apprentice, owner Jamie Meads, who is a master plumber, and his wife, office manager Erika Meads.
Some employees retired, but others moved off-Cape.
“People had to move off Cape because they can’t live here anymore,” said Erika Meads. “The cost of living has increased so heavily on Cape Cod, that it’s easier for them to live off-Cape where they can find housing at a cheaper rate.”
Several of the company’s employees live in the Mid-Cape and the company has to pay them extra for their driving time.
“We’ve lost a few employees from the Mid-Cape because they have families and the car ride to come this way was too much. If they work closer to home, they get two hours shaved out of their work time to spend with their family. That’s part of the challenge. The other challenge is housing is just too expensive this far down the Cape. A plumber’s salary does not pay for an $850,000 house.”
When new customers call for help, she said she can’t even suggest who else they should call.
“There were a few plumbers who lived nearby and they’re retiring. Once they’re out of the market, there’s no one to fill that void because no one can afford to live here.
“If all we have is a seasonal community with no employees, how do we exist?”Erika Meads
Cape Quality Plumbing & Heating
“The housing market has put us in a crisis situation where we’re not getting any new families with people looking for careers here. If all we have is a seasonal community with no employees, how do we exist?”
Magnotta hears this regularly. “People ask, ‘Is anyone going to do anything about it?’ The answer is yes. We are. With our Housing to Protect Cape Cod colleagues.”