Affordable housing fuels a healthy economy

Filed Under: October 2017 Issue

By Jay Coburn
Five years ago when I joined the Community Development Partnership as Chief Executive Officer, people often asked me to explain our Eastham-based nonprofit’s dual mission to improve housing and spur small business. Why not just focus on one problem at a time?
Today, no one asks that question. Local businesspeople tell us that their biggest barrier to success and growth is a lack of employees due to the shortage of year-round housing for working families.
Cape Cod housing costs are driven by the current economies of Boston and New York. Our local business and professional possibilities are more modest. While that disconnect is a critical issue across the region, it is most acute on the Lower Cape. Here, more than 60 percent of our housing stock is now seasonal. Recruiting is difficult because working people − at all levels − cannot afford to live here.
“Cape Cod needs more housing, specifically rental housing, to attract and retain the workforce of today and tomorrow,” says Matt Cole, President of Cape Associates. “The time to solve this problem is now – implementation will take a decade or two and we cannot afford to wait to act.”
I am encouraged by the fact that local business leaders like Matt are putting this dilemma on the front burner. Their experiences and insights can help deepen our community-wide conversations, especially in these three areas:
Sharing a vision for being more than a resort economy
As much as local businesses depend on the seasonal boom, every entrepreneur I’ve met here has good ideas about profitable pursuits outside the hospitality realm. It’s hard to ignore the potential in a place that’s known for attracting hardworking and creative people.
Then there’s our identity as a real place with its own history, culture, and community life. Being real requires having an infrastructure. There’s work to be done running our towns, teaching our children, caring for our elders, protecting our harbors, growing our oysters, and filling prescriptions and potholes.
Speaking out for plans that diversify our “housing monoculture”
The Cape Cod Commission recently reported that single-family detached structures make up 84 percent of housing on the Cape. Continuing to build out in this way means more suburban sprawl and few houses appropriate for seniors who want to downsize without having to move away or for young families just getting started.
Business leaders know well how both of these groups could bring strengths, smarts, and commitment into their workplaces.
Understanding and valuing affordable housing
It’s a common misconception that incorporating affordable housing in a town means building for those displaced by persistent poverty.
But the reality is that affordable rentals require tenants to meet income thresholds. This is housing for people who earn enough to pay $846 a month for a one-bedroom apartment or $1,173 a month for a three-bedroom. This is housing that will help a building firm hire a carpenter, a dentist to hire a hygienist, a fishermen to hire a mate, a town to hire a librarian, a nonprofit to bring on an event coordinator.
The bottom line: affordable housing is about fueling our economy. That’s why I think the more business leaders bring their insights into local problem-solving efforts, the better chance we have to live out the values of community sustainability that we all share.
Jay Coburn is Chief Executive Officer of the Community Development Partnership. He can be reached at or (508) 240-7873, ext. 16.