DSC 8224 resized 600Local leaders come together to discuss present and future housing issues on Cape Cod and the Islands at the SmarterCape Summit.  HAC CEO Rick Presbrey participated in a panel discussion about how those in the public, private and nonprofit sectors can work to solve the region’s lack of affordable housing. 

If there was a book written about the current housing situation on Cape Cod, a good title might be “The Housing Crisis.”

That is exactly the phrase several presenters used during the 5th Annual SmarterCape Summit held at the Cape Cod Resort & Conference Center in May. This year’s topic focused on housing.

“If you care about the Cape’s future, if you’re concerned how young people on Cape Cod can afford to live here… if you’re concerned housing options are too limited on Cape Cod,” said Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive Officer Wendy Northcross, “then this summit is for you.”

Her comments kicked off what was decidedly a bleak picture of the Cape’s housing issues. During an interactive survey, 92 percent of the more than 160 people in attendance responded that they believed Cape Cod has a housing problem.

Perhaps the most disturbing trend – the exodus of those between the ages of 25 to 44 from the region – was offered by Barry Bluestone of Truro, founding director of Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy.

The center was commissioned by the Cape Cod Young Professionals (CCYP) to assess the region’s outflow of what Bluestone dubbed “the core of the new labor force.” From 2000 to 2010, that demographic declined by 27 percent on Cape Cod, compared to 12.5 percent in the state and 3.4 percent nationally.

“Now here’s where things get real scary,” Bluestone told the audience, as he showed that precipitous decline continuing. It’s predicted that the Cape could lose over 20,000 people in the next 20 years. “We see a very large percentage of this is due to outmigration,” Bluestone said, noting that the majority will be the younger demographic, those under 45, that are already leaving the peninsula.

“So the real question is: how do we keep young people who are already here?” he asked. “And is it possible that we can even get some young people to come here?”

He offered some suggestions to addressing the problem including advocating for better job opportunities, reducing barriers to economic development and creating more affordable housing, including millennial villages that cater to the types of people that Cape Cod is losing.

DSC 8170 resized 600Northeastern University’s Barry Bluestone talks about Cape Cod’s housing challenges.

The region, he said, could also take a page from the economic success Chelsea has shown, creating the most jobs of all communities in the state over a 13-year period since the turn of the century.

What’s Chelsea’s secret? Marketing.

“It turns out the single factor that correlated more highly than any other with the growth in establishment, growth in business, and growth in a community was how well they did their economic development marketing,” Bluestone said.

Sitting on a panel with regional leaders and business people, HAC CEO Rick Presbrey talked about the discrepancy between housing costs on Cape Cod, which have gone up, and income, which has remained stagnant. “What it does is it drives people off the Cape because the wages are too low,” he said.

Presbrey urged action to make sure that Cape Cod can be “the place we want it to be.”

Panelist Paul Niedzwiecki, executive director of the Cape Cod Commission, said part of the solution is growth. “We need to grow,” he said. “When communities stop growing, they start dying.”

He emphasized the need to find the proper locations to site affordable housing and create incentives for developers to build these types of projects the Cape sorely needs.

Governor Charles Baker, the summit’s keynote speaker, talked about ways his administration can help.

He listed three aspects of any successful affordable housing project: permitting, labor and land. “The cost of those three elements determines the price of a project,” he said. Reducing one of those can help communities, “start to build housing people can afford to live in.”

The Commonwealth has an abundance of undeveloped land which Governor Baker said could be used to address the state’s housing issues.

Governor Baker also lamented the permitting hurdles involved with commercial and residential development, which add significant costs to a project. He promised to tackle this issue by working with officials in local government to assist the state in coming up with a more streamlined, efficient process.

In terms of providing more dollars for affordable housing projects, he said the state was at least one fiscal year away, based upon the $750 million deficit his office inherited for this fiscal year and $1.8 billion deficit for next fiscal year. “You can’t make strategic investments in anything if you don’t get your fiscal house in order,” he said, to applause.

DSC 8232 resized 600Governor Charles Baker addresses the audience at the SmarterCape Summit.

The one question Governor Baker did not have an answer to was how the Cape can address the loss of its young people. “This kid issue is a tough one,” he said, following a long pause. “I do think this issue involves a lot of things… Number one, it’s year-round employment which is something that I know is an issue down here.

“The unemployment rate for kids coming out of college these days is well above 25 percent,” he continued. “You can’t be picky if you’re a kid. You need to go where the opportunity is which is what my [oldest] son did. And you have to think that all those Baby Boomers that are in front of you are not going to retire any time soon so it’s a very different labor market then the one I entered when I got out of school.”