BARNSTABLE — An advisory committee established to recommend best uses of the $41.4 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding sent to the county says the $11.4 million remaining in the pot should go to addressing housing needs in the region.
The ARPA advisory committee’s recommendation, already approved by the Barnstable County Commission and now pending before the Assembly of Delegates, would allocate $3 million for sheltering and medical respite for the homeless, $6.9 million for affordable housing, and $1.5 million for workforce housing and the needs of “missing middle” wage earners who fall short of the income needed to be able to invest in a house on the Cape.
Paul Niedzwiecki, chair of the ARPA advisory committee and CEO of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, presented the committee’s findings to the Assembly at its Jan. 4 meeting.
In all three categories, the money would be awarded through a process of requests for proposals administered by the county. Nonprofit organizations, businesses, and municipalities would all be eligible to apply.
Sheltering the Homeless
Since the outbreak of Covid-19, Niedzwiecki told the delegates, “the face of homelessness on the Cape has become a lot older.” Homeless people also increasingly have accompanying medical and behavioral health conditions, he said.
Alisa Magnotta, executive director of the Housing Assistance Corporation (HAC), said that providing more space between beds to prevent a spread of the virus meant reducing capacity at the year-round St. Joseph’s House shelter in Hyannis from 50 to 45. That resulted in a scramble for other temporary housing, such as motel rooms.
Catholic Social Services, the Duffy Health Center, and HAC worked together in new ways during the height of the pandemic and decided that making food, shelter, and medical and counseling services available at a single location would also work well going forward.
The purchase and renovation of a new building will be the focus of an application the social service organizations intend to submit for up to $3 million from the homeless program allocation. Currently, the shelter is owned by HAC, Magnotta said, while Catholic Social Services rents and runs the shelter. Duffy provides medical services and hopes to start a medical respite program. Magnotta said the organizations plan to co-locate a homeless outreach team there for better collaboration.
“We can be more efficient,” said Magnotta, and “get better results for this population and for the region.”
Duffy Health Center CEO Heidi Nelson told the Assembly that her center offers medical care, mental health services, and substance use disorder programs to homeless people. Last year, she said, it served over 3,000 people. Duffy is also the lead agency in a winter motel stay program called In From the Streets. It housed 150 people last winter. “That’s three times the number we would normally be serving pre-Covid,” Nelson said.
The state Dept. of Housing and Community Development provided significant financial support for that program and has committed to continued funding for the next 10 years. It would be run from the newly proposed shelter, Nelson said.
Nelson is also planning a medical respite program for homeless people who are too sick to be on the street but not sick enough to remain in the hospital. It would help post-surgery patients, who represent a major challenge for discharge planners at Cape Cod Hospital. The cost to fund a five-bed pilot program would be about $500,000. Nelson is talking with state health and housing officials about creating an appropriate funding stream to support the respite program.
In addition, Cape Cod Hospital is embarking on building a new tower on its property. The state has a program that could require the hospital to provide community benefits in exchange for hosting a major capital project. “We will certainly be at the table writing our proposals to be included,” Nelson said.
The relationship between health and housing came to the fore in a recent needs assessment conducted by Cape Cod Healthcare, according to Niedzwiecki. He told the Assembly that a majority of respondents to its 2022 survey identified housing or homelessness as the top concern affecting community health.
Construction Cost Gap
The pandemic has wreaked havoc on construction plans across the nation, and the Cape is no exception. A priority for spending on affordable housing ensuring the survival of projects that have been going through lengthy permitting and funding processes and have during that time seen cost escalations that put them at risk, Niedzwiecki said.
Assembly member Dan Gessen of Falmouth asked Niedzwiecki whether the advisory committee envisioned the money going to a single large project or multiple smaller ones.
“There is a known quantity of affordable housing projects that are in the permitting process or under construction on the Cape, and the list is not extensive,” Niedzwiecki said. “Anecdotally, some of the funding gaps are $1.5 to $2 million, so the $6.9 million could fund three or four projects.”
Following Niedziewcki’s presentation to the county commission last month, Commissioner Ron Bergstrom spoke against providing grant funding to projects approved under the state’s Chapter 40B housing law, saying “we are subsidizing private enterprise and their desire to gain a profit. I would hope we would be able to concentrate on projects that are all affordable or 90 percent affordable.”
Niedzwiecki countered that the profits from 40B projects are capped. “It’s not an unlimited amount of profit for the private sector,” he said, “and frankly, 40B has produced more affordable housing in the state than any other state program ever.”
The ‘Missing Middle’
The third area for relief spending recommended by the advisory committee is redevelopment and modernization of existing housing and promoting zoning changes to allow for multifamily development and higher density in appropriate areas. The Association to Preserve Cape Cod has worked with HAC to identify the best areas for increasing housing density with the least detriment to the environment, Niedzwiecki said.
Incentives for building accessory dwelling units or for homeowners to keep their homes affordable when sold (see related story on page one on a new deed-restriction strategy) would also be ways to address the needs of what Niedzwiecki called the “missing middle.”
“You can make as much as $70,000 a year and qualify for housing assistance and still be $100,000 short of entering the market,” he said. “We are losing 1,000 families a year that make less than $100,000. That’s all workforce.”
The seasonal workforce is threatened, too, Niedzwiecki said, by rising housing costs and changes in the ways people use their properties. Pre-Covid, he said, about 5,000 J-1 seasonal workers took jobs on the Cape, and many lived with host families. Since the pandemic, that host network has largely disappeared, he said.
The number of J-1 visa holders — student workers here for the season — coming to the Cape has rebounded only to about 2,100, Niedzwiecki said. Now, sponsoring agencies are requiring employers that have J-1 workers to provide housing, he said, adding that if the lack of housing for seasonal workers is not addressed, it could leave a 3,000-person hole in the seasonal workforce.
David Troutman, owner of the Scargo Cafe in Dennis, told the Assembly he was at the discussion “to provide a little bit of insight from the trenches about the urgency regarding housing.
“Last year alone, I lost at least four people because they couldn’t afford to live here, so there’s no doubt there is a crisis,” Troutman said. “I don’t know if any of you ever tried recently to go out to dinner on a Monday or Tuesday, but the pickings are slim to none. It’s because of a lack of staff.”
Lack of housing for workers isn’t just a problem for restaurant owners. Troutman said his wife is a school administrator in Barnstable where candidates end up turning down jobs because they can’t find a place to live.
Troutman’s daughter is a registered nurse in Cape Cod Hospital’s emergency room. “She’s only been there a year, and she’s considered senior staff,” he said. The hospital, he said, is increasingly relying on traveling nurses to do jobs once held by local people.