Buying a house on Cape Cod, Nantucket, or Martha’s Vineyard — or finding a year-round rental — seems harder than ever. For police officers and firefighters, the nature of their work makes finding suitable housing a unique challenge. In Part 1 of a two-part series, CAI’s Jennette Barnes delves into the housing crisis from the first responders’ point of view.

“Tuukka, come. Tuukka — hey.”

Shortly before the holidays, Gabriella Parker is trying to coax her black Lab to move toward the fireplace for a family picture.

Parker, her parents, her boyfriend, and two black Labrador retrievers are squeezing together near the Christmas tree in her parents’ Harwich living room.

Except it’s also her living room, and sometimes her boyfriend’s living room, too.

At 29 years old, Parker, an Orleans firefighter and paramedic, lives at home because of Cape Cod’s steep housing prices.

“We’ve been looking,” she says. “I’ve been looking for a long time. It just — it’s the money, obviously… You can’t afford anything. Even if you are pre-approved, which I am, it’s just not sustainable at all.”

Especially on a single person’s income. Parker has been looking at homes with her boyfriend, Erik Simonsen, a Mashpee police officer.

“Two-bed, two-bath, 1,200 square feet, $600,000,” he says, describing the kinds of homes that turned up in their search. “With some money down, we were looking at about a 4k a month mortgage payment. And it’s just not really feasible. I mean, it’s the stuff that makes your stomach turn thinking about it.”

Buying a house on a firefighter’s salary used to be easier than it is today, as Parker’s family knows from personal experience.

She comes from a family of people in the fire service, including a few ancestors in the family tree, her sister’s husband, and her own father, Donald Parker.

“Dad, you’ve been on Harwich Fire for how long?” she asks.

He knows the date: May 20, 1984.

He bought a house on Cape Cod when he was single, in his mid 20s.

“Just shortly after getting on the Fire Department — I don’t know, maybe ‘85, ‘86, something like that — I was able to buy a small house, a ranch with a one-car garage,” he says.

He was a little nervous about the size of the payments — “a big nut every month,” he says. “But you work it out and make it happen. But things were priced a little different then than they are now.”

His wife, Laurie Parker, says her husband’s first house cost just $85,000. And while prices naturally rise over time, the market in the ‘80s and ‘90s was much less competitive than it is today.

“When we sold it in 1995, it had been on the market three years,” she says. “That was in the early ‘90s when things weren’t moving. So then we found this land and built a house. I can’t imagine anybody these days starting out in these occupations that could afford to build a house.”

If you’re thinking that lots of people make less than firefighters, you’re right.

Orleans Fire Chief Geof Deering says members of his department start at about $70,000.

But firefighters are supposed to live near the station to be called back for emergencies. In fact, until late last year, Orleans required them to live within seven miles.

And home prices on the Lower and Outer Cape are extraordinarily high. According to the Cape and Islands Association of Realtors, single-family homes in Orleans last year sold for a median price of $1.2 million. That’s 68 percent more than the median sale price Cape-wide, which was $730,000.

Chief Deering says it doesn’t take much math to see the problem.

“How that affects us is, it narrows our hiring pool,” he says. “It also limits, when we do have an emergency, how many firefighters come back. And ultimately, it makes it really challenging to staff the department appropriately.”

On Nantucket, where the median sale price was more than $3 million last year, the fire chief himself doesn’t own a house; he’s renting housing the town reserves for department heads.

Nantucket Fire Chief Michael Cranson says two firefighters live off-island, and one who left was commuting from Lowell. Others work a second or third job to afford housing, which means they’re not always available to cover extra shifts or help with an incident.

But he says Nantucket is committed to helping Islanders find living space they can afford. Town Meeting has appropriated $84 million, most of it since 2016, for construction subsidies and other investments in affordable housing.

“So I’m optimistic that the problem will be solved eventually, but certainly not as quickly as we would all like,” he says.

Back in Orleans, as the holidays approached, Gabriella Parker was planning to broaden her home search beyond the old seven-mile limit.

But if the commute is too long, it can make a firefighter ineligible to earn extra income covering the station during an incident.

And she’ll need that money to move out of Mom and Dad’s house.

“He jokes around that he’s going to change the locks,” Parker says. “I mean, I’m just waiting for it. But I think he also knows that I have — you know, there’s really nowhere for us to go.”

In Part 2 of this series, we’ll hear directly from Cape Cod police officers about their experience with housing prices. And we’ll learn more about what communities are doing to make sure first responders have a decent place to live. To read Part 2, click here.

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