Even before the pandemic hit our economy, Cape Cod was suffering from an extreme lack of rental properties for our workforce. In Barnstable, we had a vacancy rate of less than 1%, when real estate experts consider a 7% vacancy rate to be healthy.
Prices soar when there are so many people competing for so few rentals. As a result, most of the workforce on which we depend is spending more than 50% of their income on rent. It’s not sustainable for our economy or for these individual households.
Housing Assistance administers an array of support for tenants from federal, state, local and private sources. And the eviction moratorium has added another layer of tenant protection.
However, for local landlords not receiving rent, there aren’t the same supports. Our agency became concerned that as landlords lose out on rent, they will sell their rental property. Real estate prices are skyrocketing due to buyers from off-Cape purchasing here. If these owners stay year-round, it could be great for our year-round economy, but the loss of rentals would further exacerbate our shortage of workforce housing.
With many renters already falling behind on rent and this trend expected to worsen as the tourist season slows and government programs wane, Housing Assistance wanted to better understand how the pandemic has affected landlords and what we might do as a community to ensure they continue to offer much-needed rentals. This summer, our agency sent out a survey to roughly 450 local landlords; of those 108, representing roughly 1,600 units on Cape Cod and the Islands, responded.
Over half of the respondents have four or fewer apartments. Essentially their rental property is a small side business that helps them make their annual expenses or retirement goals. Some respondents owned as many as 50 apartments.
As to the role the pandemic has played on their units, 30% of landlords reported that at least one of their tenants have fallen behind and caught up or are still behind on rent since mid- March. A total of 37% expressed concern that one or more of their tenant will fall behind on rent in the coming months.
Housing Assistance is developing new programs to help tenants and landlords maintain tenancy including making sure all tenants in crisis apply for financial assistance when eligible.
However, the entire community needs to be aware of the precarious state of workforce housing. We cannot afford to lose any of our existing rentals and we must do everything we can to support the creation of new rental properties. For example, get involved at town meetings to support Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) bylaws which allow homeowners to more easily add a small rental unit on their property; support zoning reform to promote additional housing in walkable village centers; and support investment in town sewer plans which can handle wastewater from additional apartments without negatively impacting our water and environment.