A Widening Gap: Housing & Earnings on Cape Cod

May 2022

The gap between Cape Cod’s comparatively low wages and comparatively high housing costs reflects core challenges to the provision of adequate affordable housing in the region. 

Barnstable County, which spans the entirety of Cape Cod, has lower median earnings than the state as a whole. In 2020, median earnings for the civilian population 16 years and over with earnings was $42,887 in Barnstable County, over $7,000 less than the state’s median earnings of $50,058, though slightly higher than the nation’s ($39,782).1 Moreover, Barnstable County’s median earnings have been increasing at a slower rate than both the state’s and the country’s. From 2015 to 2020, median earnings for the civilian population 16 years and over with earnings increased by 14.5% in Barnstable County, 20.2% in Massachusetts, and 17.8% in the United States.2 

Explore data related to labor force participation and earnings in Barnstable County. 

 While earnings are less in the region compared to the state, housing costs are higher. Barnstable County’s owner-occupied units have higher median values than the state’s or the country’s: in 2020, the median value of owner-occupied units was $414,000 in Barnstable County, $398,800 in Massachusetts, and $229,800 in the United States.3 Rents are also higher: the median gross rent for occupied units paying rent was $1,362 in Barnstable County, compared to $1,336 in Massachusetts, and $1,096 in the United States.4 Despite the clear need for more attainable housing, housing production in Barnstable County remains low: as of 2020, 2.5% of the County’s housing supply was built in 2010 or later, compared to 4.0% in Massachusetts and 6.2% in the United States.5 

Explore data related to housing affordability for renters and owners in Barnstable County.

Taken together, Barnstable County’s comparatively low earnings and comparatively high housing costs creates a housing market inaccessible to many members of the regional labor force. The County has a greater share of renters spending 30% or more of their income on rent (a typical benchmark of housing affordability) than either the state or the country: in 2020, 56.2% spent 30% or more of their income on rent, compared to 48.9% in Massachusetts and 49.1% in the United States.6 Homeownership remains out of reach for many Barnstable County residents: in 2020, there was an estimated gap of over $42,000 between residents’ actual median household income and the income needed to affordably purchase a single-family home.7 Among residents that do own homes, Barnstable County also has a significantly greater share of homeowners with mortgages spending 30% or more of their income on housing costs than either the state or the country: in 2020, 37.5% spent 30% or more of their income on their housing costs, compared to 29.5% in Massachusetts and 27.4% in the United States.8 

Preliminary data suggests the gap between earnings and housing costs has only become more extreme during the pandemic. As one indication of this widening gap, the median sales price of a single-family home increased at nearly three times the rate of average weekly wages from June 2019 through June 2021.9 Since then, the median sales price has remained extremely elevated, even exceeding $650,000 in select months in 2021 and 2022. 

Explore data related to pandemic real estate trends in Barnstable County.

For the foreseeable future, the gap between wages and housing costs may continue to affect the regional economy, including through strain on its labor force. Already, Barnstable County has a much lower labor force participation rate than either the state or the country: in 2020, 59.8% of the County’s population 16 years and over participated in the labor force, compared to 67.2% in Massachusetts and 63.4% in the United States.10 Additionally, small businesses and non-profits report observing a connection between housing shortages and staffing challenges, with small businesses and non-profits surveyed in November 2021 citing inability to find available and/or affordable housing as the top factor contributing to challenges in getting employees to return to work during the pandemic. 

Ultimately, without increased housing affordability and a wider range of housing types, regional housing challenges may only become more acute, the region more inaccessible, and the regional economy more vulnerable.