HARWICH PORT — Leaders from across the Cape gathered to discuss the region’s most pressing problems — above all, the housing crisis — at the Cape Cod Commission’s annual conference on Aug. 1 and 2.
“We’re seeing restaurants and retail places that are closed two to three days a week now because they can’t get employees,” said Dan Wolf, founder of Cape Air and former state senator for the Cape and Islands. “Every employer in here, municipal or private sector, is having trouble, and housing is the fulcrum.
“When a hurricane goes through, you don’t say, maybe we’ll fix that in 10 years,” Wolf added. “The challenge is to deal with this as a crisis, and not business as usual.”
Wolf’s remarks were followed by three speakers from off Cape who were invited to share their housing success stories with local leadership. The housing director of Vail, Colo., a county planner from North Lake Tahoe, Calif., and a housing design leader from Boston all spoke in turn about strategies that are working in their communities.
George Ruther, Vail’s housing director, told the group that in 2017 Vail formally resolved to acquire 1,000 new deed restrictions on residential units in town. The deed restrictions do not restrict the sale price of the property, the income of the person living there, or who may own the property. Instead, the restriction specifies that the person who lives there, whether owner or renter, must be working 30 hours a week or more in Eagle County, Colo.
“In 2017, we had about 5,300 year-round residents and 7,200 dwelling units,” said Ruther. “Those 5,300 residents lived in about 1,800 free-market dwelling units and 688 deed-restricted units. The other 4,800 dwellings sat vacant for the majority of the year.
“We didn’t have land,” Ruther added. Vail is “99 percent built out” and surrounded by National Forest land on all sides. “We do have a lot of dwelling units,” he said. “We needed to figure out a way to get folks living in the homes that we had within town. In my way of looking at things, we don’t have a housing problem, we have an occupancy problem in our community.”
In the last five years, Vail has paid $11.6 million for 169 deed restrictions in 87 separate transactions. The average cost per deed restriction has been $68,500, and the average cost per square foot was $82. Many of the early deed restrictions were in larger projects, but starting in 2019 the town bought 62 separate deed restrictions on condo, duplex, and townhome units.
Colorado municipalities “live and die by sales taxes,” Ruther said, and last fall the town voted for a half-percent sales tax increase dedicated specifically to housing. The proposal passed with 54 percent of the vote.
The town’s housing authority recently began buying homes outright, placing deed restrictions on them, and then immediately reselling them. “With the all-cash buyers that were coming to the table, we had residents that were willing and capable of purchasing, but they weren’t afforded time to compete,” said Ruther. “So, the Vail InDEED program stepped in.”
Devin McNally is a planner in Placer County, Calif., which runs from the northern suburbs of Sacramento up to the ski towns of North Lake Tahoe. “Similar to Cape Cod,” McNally said, “we have had a major problem with our housing stock being used for purposes other than housing.
“We call this our second-home culture,” said McNally. “In the North Lake Tahoe region, 64 percent of our homes sit vacant most of the year.” Meanwhile, two-thirds of the working population was commuting into the region from places as far away as Reno and Sacramento.
McNally said the county first created a deed restriction it calls “achievable housing” and then took multiple approaches to getting units into that “second market” of deed-restricted homes. At first, only local workers with certain incomes could live in them, but after several changes to the formula, Placer County now allows any local worker to live in the deed-restricted units.
Many programs nationwide are restricted to first-time buyers, but Placer County discarded that restriction as well. “This allows our school district and hospital district to hire — to say, sell your home wherever you live, and we can help you get a new one here,” said McNally.
Condo conversions and many kinds of new construction are now required to be 50 percent achievable units. The county has also published detailed design standards so that projects can get much faster by-right approvals — including eight free and preapproved plans for accessory dwelling units and a dedicated staffer to help people through the process.
“We were averaging one or two ADU applications per year,” said McNally. “Now we get over 100 applications per year.
“We’ve also been tackling short-term rentals,” added McNally. “We did a survey, and 40 percent of people purchasing homes were financing them through a plan to short-term rent.”
Effective this year, the North Lake Tahoe area has a cap of 3,900 short-term rental permits, which is about 21 percent of the total housing stock there and roughly equal to the current number of short-term rentals. After everyone currently renting receives a permit, there will be a waiting list for future permits.
“This is something that I think a lot of destinations talk about, with the rise of Airbnb and VRBO,” said McNally. “We now have a person on staff who’s going to be managing this full-time.”
Wandy Pascoal, a leader at Boston’s Housing Innovation Lab, spoke about that office’s efforts to make ADUs and small infill construction projects achievable. Boston focused on helping home owners create extra units within the existing envelope of their buildings, such as in attics and basements, by giving free technical advice, help with the complex maze of permits and licenses, and zero-percent-interest loans of up to $50,000 to finance the work.
“We’re now expanding beyond the building envelope, looking at carriage houses, garages, and sheds,” said Pascoal. “We have home owners who are interested in transforming those into habitable spaces — some of them with just a sketch of what they want to do — and we help them move forward.”
Pascoal is also working on an updated design of the city’s iconic triple-decker housing style. Triple-deckers, which are three-unit buildings usually made of wood, are a historic New England building type that is almost impossible to build today, said Pascoal. The “Future-Decker” project aims to establish a replicable, affordable-to-build prototype.
“We have a lot of small 3,000-to-8,000-square-foot vacant sites in the city,” said Pascoal. “We don’t have land available to create larger scale developments,” but the Future-Decker would help make scattered-site development possible by making it faster and cheaper.
Together, the three speakers made it clear that Cape Cod’s challenges are neither unique nor unsolvable. The question that hung in the air was the one Wolf had asked earlier: “If we believe this is a crisis, how do we accelerate the pace of change to address it before it gets completely out of control?”