Erin Zielinska thought she had done everything right.
Fifteen years ago she was struggling, back home on Cape Cod, trying to make ends meet as a waitress, raising her 2-year-old daughter. But at least she could afford to rent a home, thanks in part to housing assistance programs that supplemented her income.
Today, the 44-year-old has degrees in nursing and social work, and a successful career. That 2-year-old, Taylor, is now 17, a senior in high school. Her younger daughter, 5, is starting kindergarten.
But in the decade-plus that Zielinska has built a life on Cape Cod, the economy of the place has shifted dramatically. And again, she can barely hang on.
The influx of home buyers to Barnstable County has priced Zielinska, who earns around $83,000 a year, out of the rental market. Today she’s living with her daughters in the basement of her grandmother’s Pocasset home.
“I did all of the right things,” Zielinksa said, “and that has me living in a basement. We were almost on the street. How does that fit into the American dream?”
Hers is a story heard all too often on the Cape these days. A pandemic-era rush to buy homes in one of the country’s most desired vacation destinations has knocked the place’s already fragile economy out of balance. Home prices are at all-time highs (up roughly 40 percent in June from 2019 levels, according to data from the Cape Cod and Islands Association of Realtors). Housing stock has reached historic lows. And longtime residents — many of whom rent — are being pushed to a breaking point.
Now, a divide decades in the making is setting in: a large contingent of middle class residents — nurses, real estate agents, even town employees — can no longer afford to live in the communities where they grew up. They earn too much to qualify for housing assistance programs and too little to buy a house or afford rents that seem to rise by the week.
The implications for the area’s economy as a whole are severe. Grocery store lines and waits at restaurants are already longer, as businesses struggle to find hourly workers who can afford to live there. Hospitals are having a hard time retaining nurses. If something isn’t done to mitigate the rising costs, locals fear there will be no one left to do those jobs.
“The gap between the state’s definition of affordability and the amount you need to make as a family to get into the market down here is huge,” said Paul Niedzwiecki, chief executive of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. “We’re seeing valuable members of the community, the fabric of our local economy, who are reaching this point where they’re advancing financially and suddenly find themselves unable to afford to live here. It is a monumental challenge for the Cape’s longevity.”
The plight of this group is perhaps best summed up in one stunning figure: Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies estimated earlier this year that families need to earn a combined $188,400 to afford the median-priced home on the Cape, about $7,000 more than what’s needed in Greater Boston.
To be sure, the Cape’s housing crisis has been long in the making. Housing stock in Barnstable County was already low compared with the rest of the state in 2019, thanks in large part to the fact that zoning on most of the Cape only allows construction of single-family homes, and there are geographic and infrastructure challenges to density in many places.
Couple that with the increasing share of second- and third-home owners, and the growing ease and popularity of short-term rentals, and you have “systemic problems that are putting pressure on the market all at once, and pushing us towards a very complex crisis,” Niedzwiecki said.
Before 2020 though, the worst still seemed years away. Then came the pandemic, and a flurry of affluent out-of-towners who saw the Cape as the perfect escape in a work-from-home world. Property owners have jumped at the opportunity to sell.
Last month, the median home sales price hit $649,500, and there were just 616 homes on the market, compared with a median price of $431,000 and 2,627 homes for sale in June 2020, according to data provided by the Cape realtors association. Barnstable County’s rental vacancy rate, the Housing Assistance Corporation estimates, is below 1 percent.
That’s hard on residents like Zielinska, who has been desperately searching for something affordable for her and her daughters since an apartment she had lined up in May fell through. But every listing she sees — most of them two- and three-bedrooms ranging anywhere from $2,500 to $4,500 a month — is flooded with inquiries from other people just like her.
“I wake up every morning, and the first thing I do is I go on the websites, and I look, and I hope, and I pray,” she said. “Looking for housing has now become a full-time job.”
It’s the same for Meaghan Mort. A traveling nurse and lifelong Cape resident, Mort was scrolling Facebook last month when she spotted a real estate listing that looked familiar. Then it hit her. It was her home in Marston Mills. Mort’s landlord, hoping to cash in on the hot housing market, had put it up for sale and never told her.
Now Mort and her husband are scrambling to find a new place for themselves and their 5-year-old son but, as she puts it, “there’s just nothing.”
It’s a vexing situation, Mort said. She grew up on the Cape and was herself homeless at age 15. She can’t help but feel dejected by how the community she has come to love is now so far out of reach.
“Anybody who’s been renting here for the majority of their lives knew what was going to happen,” said Mort, who combined with her husband earned $102,000 last year. “But now that it’s happening, it feels like we are losing the Cape we have always loved.”
There doesn’t appear to be any immediate relief in sight. Yes, some apartment complexes are in the works, but approval and construction take years. Plus, those projects are often met with harsh opposition from wealthier residents who wince at the prospect of a denser Cape Cod, said Ryan Castle, chief executive of the Cape Cod and Islands Association of Realtors.
Residents and advocates have proposed a litany of short-term solutions: accessory dwelling units, trailer homes, tiny houses. There was even talk of housing workers here on student visas in the rectory of a church.
But none of those ideas addresses the crisis at its core.
“There’s a surprising amount of disagreement on this, but there shouldn’t be: we need to build housing of all types, especially apartments and condos,” Castle said. “If we don’t, the Cape communities aren’t going to have any more economic ground to stand on.”
Indeed, some longtime residents are already leaving, Niedzwiecki said. More are considering it, including Zielinska. But the father of her younger daughter owns a business in Mashpee. Leaving feels like a nonstarter. So she’ll keep scanning the rental websites every morning.
“Leaving would solve my problems, but I feel like I can’t leave,” she said. “It’s an impossible situation.”