Black Lives Matter sign over a heart on Cape Cod

By Alisa Magnotta

Now more than ever, the direct link between housing and healthcare and our economy has been demonstrated. When the best strategy for dealing with COVID-19 is to stay home, we see how a safe place to call home is vital for our society. The pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests have brought into the foreground racial and economic disparities in our communities. Many people who work here, who make our communities work, cannot afford to live here. That’s especially true if they happen to be people of color.

These inequalities have grown over decades, in fact over centuries. We didn’t start the problem, but we can help stop it. One of the biggest issues preventing more diversity and equality on Cape Cod is our outdated, nearly homogenous single-family zoning. When our zoning only allows one house per lot, we are sending a message that we only welcome people who can afford high-priced homes that require an annual salary of over $100,000 to purchase. That excludes many of the people who work here today.

We can update our zoning to include more housing diversity and affordability, to break down this area of institutionalized racism, and to reduce sprawl, preserving beautiful, year-round communities that work for all of us. Not everyone wants to live in a freestanding home, and not all who work here can afford a single-family home. Appropriate-scale, multi-family housing in walkable village centers is desirable to young professionals, seniors wanting to downsize, and those seeking a “starter” home. A stable place to call home is essential to a person’s ability to weather crises.

It’s important to remember the vibrant village centers we all love like those in Chatham, Provincetown and Falmouth could not be built under today’s restrictive zoning. It’s fun to visit areas like Mashpee Commons that combine walkable shopping with moderate-density apartments to create a bustling atmosphere. Moderate density done right can revitalize neighborhoods and create more opportunities for us to enjoy our community and each other.

We’ve seen that in our Lofts at 57 townhouses in Hyannis. Thanks to removing the single-family zoning restriction, we were able to transform a ¾-acre lot that had been vacant for more than a decade into a “pocket neighborhood” of eight rental units around a central green. They’ve all been rented to young professionals who are excited to live so close to Hyannis’ Main Street, employment, transportation, and social activities.

It takes balancing our environmental concerns with our economy and housing needs. It starts with changing zoning so that it reflects our inclusionary values—and unwinds the historical decisions that disenfranchise people of color or those who make less in service jobs. Zoning is not fun or exciting, but it involves all of us. Here on Cape Cod and the Islands, we have extremely local government. I encourage you to go to your town’s website and find Town Meeting and hearing dates. Show up and speak up for more housing diversity and affordability in our communities.

This could mean supporting more expansive ADU bylaws, which enable people to create an Accessory Dwelling Unit (i.e., mother-in-law or basement apartments) on their property. Or it could mean supporting rezoning in your village center or other appropriate area to allow moderate-density housing. Or contacting the Cape Cod Commission to ensure they have a balanced Regional Policy Plan that includes housing as a priority. The most important thing is that you start to follow housing issues in your town and take every opportunity to support changes that increase the opportunity for a more diverse group of residents in our communities.

It will take all of us being involved to change the course of events and build a better tomorrow for everyone!


I’m incredibly proud of all the staff at Housing Assistance who stepped up to serve our community during this crisis. Our homeless shelter staff did an excellent job with increased safety protocols to help our most vulnerable clients and the staff who serve them stay healthy. The rest of us transitioned to a virtual work environment and made extra efforts to stay connected with each other and our clients. In addition, I’d like to thank the following additional staff for their outstanding contributions:

  • Suzanne Smith created an innovative system that allows clients of our Energy Department to request a Remote Home Energy Assessment. Clients provide basic information about their home, and connect with an auditor through Zoom, FaceTime or other platform. This system enabled us to work safely during the early days of the pandemic and it will improve our efficiency even as we return to a more normal work model.
  • Keith Trott, David Quinn and team successfully completed construction and leased-up the Lofts at 57 on Ridgewood Avenue in Hyannis – despite limitations on inspections and showings due to the pandemic. The apartments and grounds are beautiful, create much-needed attainable and affordable housing, and add vibrancy to the whole neighborhood.
  • Liz Belcher, Cindy Burns, and Walter Phinney, along with the facilities team, created a safer, socially-distant front office layout and operations so that we could re-open for face-to-face service from 9 am to noon every week day starting late June. Remote services have been great, but some clients still appreciate face-to-face help.
  • Margaret Benaka, Kristin Melpignano, Jodi Keegan and Vic Lawson launched new technologies and managed software conversions and upgrades that required extra hours, attention to detail, and lots of virtual collaboration to ensure that we could continue and even enhance services without disruption.