For many people, buying a house on Cape Cod or the Islands feels out of reach. The problem affects first responders in particular ways, especially when they need to live near the station. In Part 1 of this series, we met a multi-generational family of firefighters for whom buying a house has gotten harder from one generation to the next. Now, in Part 2, CAI’s Jennette Barnes talks with police officers about the housing crisis and reports on what some communities are doing about the problem.

A telephone rings in the dispatch center at Barnstable Police headquarters.

“Barnstable Police, recorded line.”

Dim lighting makes it easier for three dispatchers and a police officer to monitor seven computer screens each, plus security footage on additional screens around the room.

Officer Brandon Sanders is here at the station. He’s part of a unit focused on mental health, substance use, and crisis intervention — and he’s just recently been able to move to Cape Cod, after about four years on the department.

In a meeting room at the station, Sanders sits down to talk about the winding road of housing costs that kept him off the Cape.

“I was a police officer in the town of Hull,” he says. “I was living in Pembroke at the time, because at the time, the market was getting tough already. I could not afford a home towards Hull.”

When he transferred to the Barnstable Police Department, his commute was an hour. So he sold the Pembroke house and bought something a bit closer, in Plymouth.

“I absolutely did look on Cape at the time,” he says. “For the money I was allotted from the bank, it was not reasonable for me, or a good fiscal move, to come over the bridge.”

Many of the homes in his price range needed $50,000 to $100,000 worth of work before he could move in, he says. When he finally moved to Cape Cod, it was only possible because his significant other already owned a home in Centerville.

Seated next to Sanders at a long table is Sgt. Corey Frederickson, a 10-year member of the Barnstable Police Department who oversees hiring and training.

He says when officers don’t live nearby, it takes extra time for them to respond to a serious situation, especially in summer — and that’s not all.

“Another issue that has come up with officers not residing in the area anymore is, we do have a regional SWAT team, so we have towns from all over the Cape supply officers to be on this emergency response unit,” he says. “And when the officers do live off Cape or further away, it does delay that emergency response we may need.”

Barnstable Police Sgt. Corey Frederickson, left, and Officer Brandon Sanders talked about the high cost of housing on Cape Cod and its effect on officers and the department.
Barnstable Police Sgt. Corey Frederickson, left, and Officer Brandon Sanders talked about the high cost of housing on Cape Cod and its effect on officers and the department.
Jennette Barnes CAI

He says the housing situation makes hiring harder, too, because not everyone wants to deal with the commute.

The starting salary for a Barnstable police officer without a college degree is about $67,000 — which puts them firmly in the range of concern. Households earning $100,000 or less are being displaced from Cape Cod by wealthier families, according to housing advocates.

“It’s just that they’ve either been priced out of the market, or there’s zero inventory in that particular group,” says Jen Cullum, director of community engagement and advocacy at the nonprofit Housing Assistance Corporation. “And that’s — that’s the real problem.”

She’s working to reach what’s called the “missing middle.” She says many people on Cape Cod earn too much for traditional affordable housing, but still can’t find a place to live, even with income up to $120,000 a year.

“And those are the people that move our economy forward and move our public safety in the right direction,” she says.

They’re trying to buy homes in a market where the median single-family house sells for about $700,000. And many are not succeeding.

So, what can police and fire departments do?

Some, including the Barnstable Police Department and Orleans Fire Department, are letting their employees live farther from the station, where housing may cost less. And to cope with those longer commutes, some fire departments have added personnel, so they rely less on off-duty staff being called in from home for emergencies, says Orleans Fire Chief Geof Deering.

“Expecting firefighters to come from home — that has not proven to be an effective model anymore, at least for Orleans,” he says. “And I think just about every fire department on Cape Cod has changed their staffing and response model to address that.”

So, some first responders are allowed to live farther away. But a long commute is not the goal. What about making it easier for them to live near work?

Communities across the Cape region are responding to the need.

Some housing organizations sell homes that are deed-restricted as affordable for income-qualified buyers.

Many efforts focus on rental units, including the renovation of the former Cape Cod 5 building in Orleans to create 62 mixed-income apartments.

Provincetown is offering cash incentives to property owners who convert short-term rentals or mostly vacant housing into year-round rentals, in a program called “Lease to Locals.”

And in Barnstable, the town is encouraging a concentration of housing in Hyannis by allowing four-story buildings on Main Street.

Deering, the Orleans fire chief, says communities need to consider new ways to house town employees — and people in other fields, too.

“The next thing on the horizon is, how do we address this as a fire department, but also as the community at large,” he says. “Because you could take ‘fire department’ off this housing challenge and put in almost any other industry on Cape Cod, and it’s going to be a very similar situation.”

If only we could call our first responders to rush in with sirens and lights and solve the housing crisis. In the meantime, towns are taking it one idea, one project, and one affordable home at a time.

To read Part 1 of this story, click here.
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