I’ve noticed that, as the Outer Cape’s quest for housing alternatives intensifies, the term “affordable housing” seems to be muted. Insofar as it indicates that we have people in need in our midst, that phrase has always made some people uncomfortable. In the current market, though, the term “affordable housing” has literally lost touch with reality.
The median selling price of a house in Truro hit $869,000 in May; in Eastham it reached $705,000. For potential buyers, that means an annual income of about $150,000 to $200,000 — more than double the median income here. As Paul Benson wrote in this newspaper in February, when the Cape Cod Commission published new housing and income data, “The gap between median income of local residents and median house prices across the Outer Cape is massive.”
One way to make sense of this would be to adopt a new vocabulary. Some housing advocates are using the terms “attainable” and “achievable” housing. These words may sound better than “affordable.” But what do they actually mean? That we’re just going to accept that affordable places here have disappeared?
The phrase that we are now hearing more than any other is “workforce housing.” This term arises from a pressing and wholly legitimate worry: that if we can’t provide places for working people to live, local businesses will fail because of staffing problems, there won’t be people to run our schools and town departments or fix our cars, and our entire Outer Cape economy and social service system could collapse.
The T-Time Development Committee in Eastham says its housing vision emphasizes senior and workforce apartments. And Civico, one of the three bidders for the 95 Lawrence Road project in Wellfleet, has focused its proposal on workforce housing.
Workforce housing sounds good. It sounds right. We like working people. But workforce housing is often defined, as in the Civico proposal, as targeting those households earning at least 80 percent of Area Median Income (AMI). Translation: nearly half of the working people among us would be left out of workforce housing.
Here are the numbers: 80 percent of AMI for a single person is currently $54,450 in Barnstable County. For a single parent with one child it’s $62,200. The average salaries of some of our most important Cape Cod workers are far below those thresholds: for a handyman, it’s $43,826; a child-care provider, $33,696; a house cleaner, $33,218; a nursing assistant, $37,148; a home health aide, $30,472. The average annual income for workers in the accommodation and food service industry here is $28,756. The average salary for a reporter on Cape Cod, by the way, is $37,744.
There were 205 applicants in the affordable rental lotttery conducted earlier this month by Community Housing Resource in Provincetown. Of that total, 175 households — 85 percent — had income less than $50,000. They would not qualify for workforce housing.
Are these people not part of the workforce? Or is “workforce housing” a euphemism that allows us to forget that we have an economy built on the backs of the working poor?