BARNSTABLE – Paula Hersey wants people to know she is a face of affordable housing.
“We are your neighbors, friends, and community leaders of today and tomorrow,” she said of those who need affordable housing.
She often hears talk of “those people” who live in affordable housing, and she wants people to know that she and her husband are “those people.” And they happen to be hardworking longtime members of the community.
Hersey, who at age 52 calls herself a “community connector,” is a familiar presence on Cape Cod by virtue of her role as Director of Outreach and Special Projects at Cape Cod Community Media Center and her service on numerous committees.
But Paula may not have been able to stay on Cape Cod if not for a rare affordable housing opportunity back in the 1980s, when she first “washed ashore,” in the local parlance, here on Cape Cod.
“I never used to talk about being a 40B homeowner or the way we were able to buy our house, but I have realized that it is critical for Cape Cod as a region and community to remove the stigma associated with needing a safe and reliable place to call home,” she said.
She told her affordable housing story in public for the first time at the inaugural session of Cape Housing Advocacy Training, which took place last month at Shepley Showcase in Hyannis.
The training, put on by the local nonprofits Housing Assistance Corporation and Community Development Partnership, is meant to inspire and teach regular Cape Codders to turn out to town meetings and speak up in support of affordable housing projects and zoning initiatives that help create housing.
When she heard about the advocacy training, Hersey said she wanted to be a part of it. “I’m not ashamed that we needed help, but there’s a stigma. Now I’m out in the community and perceived to be successful,” she said, and yet someone learning she lives in affordable housing may wonder why.
After telling her story at the recent training, several people in the group admitted that they too lived in affordable housing, something one woman said she might not have admitted had Paula not told her story. That has made it worthwhile, Paula said.
“If I can change one person’s opinion of what affordable housing looks like,” Paula said, it will be worth it.
As to what affordable housing does for people, Paula’s husband, David, did not hesitate. “You can build a life,” he said.
“When you’ve got a home, there’s this permanency you don’t realize. It’s something a lot of people take for granted,” Paula said.
Originally from Western Massachusetts, Paula Hersey came to Cape Cod as a young twenty-something in the summer of 1986. She was embarking on her first career, in retail management.
Like many before her, she fell in love with this special place. She also fell in love with a local, David Hersey, a born and raised Barnstable resident who grew up on Ocean Street in the house that now serves as the Hyannis Angler’s Club.
David’s parents made ends meet in the way many families did in the 1950s and ’60s on Cape Cod, as the tourist economy was growing. They were resourceful and creative. Their home doubled as a rooming house for the young people working in the nearby bars and restaurants.
David’s father, Bud, worked for many years at the Stop and Shop, which, back then, was located in Bradford’s Hardware. He eventually left that job and turned his home into a variety store called Bud’s For Good Food. In addition to selling packaged food items, they grilled burgers for the tourists heading to the ferries, David recalled.
After a childhood growing up across the street from Hyannis Harbor, David lived off Cape for a few years in the mid-1960s. When he returned, the building boom had hit Hyannis. The family home had been sold and David lived with friends; in houses with numerous other young people; and finally in his first apartment, a closet-sized space renting for $14 a week. When he met Paula, David was the shipping and receiving supervisor at Filene’s.
Paula and David met at a weekend party. “Our eyes met and that was it,” Paula said.
“I asked for her number. She actually gave it to me,” David said.
They both recall their first date like it was yesterday: pizza from Jack’s, a six pack of Bud Lights, and they watched the ’88 Olympics on television.
Paula liked the fact that David, unlike some guys she had met, didn’t mind that she was a big sports fan.
They soon became a couple, engaged to be married, but they were having trouble finding an affordable place to live.
“I lived above some heroin dealers where the landlord charged me $500 plus utilities for one room with the bathroom in the kitchen,” Paula said. To make it even worse, the landlord entered the apartment anytime he wanted without notice.
“I moved six times in three years—first, last and security each time,” she said.
She made $4.75 an hour working at Kmart. “I ate a lot of ramen, walked or biked everywhere, couch surfed, lived in unfinished basements without a bathroom,” she said.
David lived in an overcrowded house with eight other people. He kept a padlock on the door to his closet-like room. He had to schedule what time he could use the bathroom, kitchen and laundry.
Meanwhile, David’s 72-year-old mother lived in a 55-plus retirement community on Route 134 in Dennis. She had custody of her eight-year-old grandson. One day when the boy was out riding the new bicycle that Paula and David had gotten him for his birthday, one of the neighbors reported the infraction to the manager. No one under the age of 55 was allowed to live there. David’s mother and her grandson would have to leave.
It was an emotional time for all involved and when Paula told the story in front of the students gathered for the Housing Advocacy Training recently, she choked up at the thought of it.
“I remember that phone call. It was heart-breaking,” she said.
Now Paula and David needed a place for not just the two of them to live, but also for David’s mother and his nephew.
“Three-bedroom rentals are scarce on Cape Cod in the off-season, never mind April. The interest rate for a home loan was over 11 percent and we couldn’t even fathom where we would get at least $20,000 for a down payment. We started to think we would have to move off Cape to survive,” she recalled.
What happened next was unexpected. David saw a small item in the newspaper about a first-of-its-kind housing lottery for 11 affordable homes being built in Marstons Mills, a village in the town of Barnstable. It was, Paula believes, the Cape’s first Chapter 40B housing development.
Chapter 40B is a Massachusetts state statute that allows developers to bypass some zoning rules, particularly those concerning density, if they agree to include at least 20 to 25 percent of their units as affordable housing.
“No one had ever heard of the program. No one had ever heard of anything like this,” Paula said.
The couple jumped at the chance to try to buy one of the affordable homes in the new development, but their journey was just beginning. It’s not easy to qualify for affordable housing nor is there a guarantee that you will be one of those lottery winners, she said.
“We had to pass credit checks, background checks, show that we had enough in our bank account to cover attorney closing costs of $1,000 and that we could afford the monthly mortgage, home insurance and property taxes,” Paula said.
“We became adept at hoop-jumping and advocating for our blended family. We put off getting married, sold cars, bikes and family heirlooms. We were almost derailed by a $13 balance on a Sears card. We filled out mountains of paperwork we barely understood all the while praying we would be one of those 11 on lottery day,” she said.
She recalled the scene the day of the lottery. “There were so many applicants, deserving families just like ours, but we were lucky number 11,” she said.
Because this was what Paula and David believe was the first affordable home development on Cape Cod, Governor Michael Dukakis came down to the Cape to cut the ribbon for the development on their front lawn in a ceremony for public officials.
They now joke about the fact that state officials brought in grass covering their yard for the ceremony, when David would have preferred the existing moss covering that did not require a lawnmower. “He blames Dukakis to this day,” Paula said.
They have now lived in that home for 30 years. It hasn’t been easy, according to Paula.
“The program is the strictest of its kind and the deed rider is onerous at times,” she said. They can’t get a home equity loan and they have had to refinance several times to get standard home maintenance done. If they decide to sell, they lose one-third of the selling price, as well as the original $11,000 buydown.
But having a home has allowed Paula and David to weather the strains of making a living on Cape Cod.
After more than 30 years living on the Cape, Paula has an extensive resume. Former president and longtime member of the Cape Cod Technology Council, she was one of the founders of Geek Girls, a local technology training initiative, and she owned her own business, Penguin Digital Design for ten years. She is a member of the Workforce Investment Board, a member of the Cape Cod Makers Board and member and past president of the local chapter of the American Business Women’s Association. She is also an alumnae and past board member of the Community Leadership Institute.
In other words, Paula Hersey gives new meaning to the term “networking.”
“I have changed careers three times to help offset the rising costs of living here. We continue to live simply and frugally and now we are looking at retirement and how we may need to modify our two-story home to accommodate what comes with aging,” she said.
Because they would not see a return on their investment if they sold, they do not see themselves ever leaving. Having an affordable home has allowed Paula and David to build a life on Cape Cod, but because of the high cost of living here, it has not allowed them to move on from that house.
“This is our home forever,” she said.
Paula and David recently celebrated their 25th anniversary.
Sitting in their cozy living room with their three dogs as the sun set the other evening, the couple, each with a dog on their laps, seemed content. Remaining in the house where their lives began together has its advantages.
Paula said they have been happy there. “The neighborhood is awesome. It’s convenient. I love the trees,” she said.
On a recent early evening, a few cars drove past, neighbors headed home for the night.
Paula nodded to the cars. “It’s a working class neighborhood, man. People leave at 7am and they come home at 4 or 5.”
And that is the important thing. They come home.
Note: Laura M. Reckford is the Director of Community Relations for Housing Assistance Corporation.
– Please like us on Facebook.