The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, June 19, 2009

How is Carlisle riding out the recession?

A walk around town would reveal few signs of distress. Ferns remains busy, tax bills are being paid at Town Hall, and new homes are under construction. But look behind this facade and problems are evident. Unemployment is up and many of those with jobs are seeing lower income. Real estate sales are down, as are home values. More people applied for fuel assistance this past winter, and some have been forced to tap the Carlisle Neighbors Fund to pay bills. As the months go by, will more Carlisle families need help?

According to the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, the unemployment rate continues to rise in Carlisle. Nearly twice as many are now unemployed as in 2008, when the unemployment rate was 3.4%. As of April, it was 6.4%, and 164 Carlisleans were out of work (see chart below).

Real estate continues to lag. As of June 15, 13 homes have gone “under agreement” in Carlisle so far this year. Last year the number was 16, and in 2007, 21 homes had sold by this time. Says Laura Baliestiero, vice president at Coldwell Banker, “I’ve been involved in six ‘short sales’ in Carlisle over the last six months. That is when you sell the house for less than what the mortgage is worth.” She adds, “It is rare to see anyone these days trading up on their homes.”

Growth in Carlisle in recent years has been built on a foundation of high-income jobs, but the employees at Town Hall are starting to see signs of cracks. Treasurer/Tax Collector Larry Barton says a couple of people have asked for extensions on tax bills due to job losses. Assessor Melissa Stamps notes that applications for a waiver of the 2% CPA surcharge on tax bills are up by 50%. Angela Smith, Outreach Coordinator for the Council on Aging observes, “There were definitely more requests for fuel assistance this year,” with around 20 households (families as well as seniors) asking for help. She also has had more inquiries about resources for tax and mortgage support.

Administrative Coordinator Elizabeth Barnett reports that she has helped a few people tap state resources offering food, healthcare and mortgage assistance, including a family who would have lost their home without such assistance. She also points to a healthy interest in the affordable units to be built at Benfield. “Is Carlisle immune to the economy? I don’t think so,” she says.

Pastor Diane Miller manages the First Religious Society’s part of the Carlisle Neighbor Fund, which is distributed among the three churches in town. The fund was set up to help people who might need limited assistance through private anonymous donations. She reports three requests for the fund, all of which were met and helped families pay bills totaling less than $1,000.

She says, “I’m surprised [the number of requests] was that few. I expect there will be more.” She is aware of people in town who have lost jobs or business, including some who felt forced to sell their homes. “There are many who have been hit very hard,” she says, “but people consider something like [applying to the fund] a last resort.” She adds, “In a community such as this, many have resources to draw on in a downturn, but more may need help in the months to come. It’s a very anxious time.”

Carlisle School Nurse Kathy Horan believes there may be a few more students requesting free lunches, and notes she has cued her staff to watch out for families that have lost health insurance and may need a referral to Mass Health resources. Although she has not been aware of many families suffering from the downturn, Horan says, “There could lot more hurting than we know about. This is a community where it’s hard to ask.” She has noticed that in the past three or four years a higher percentage of moms are working, and surmises that a layoff in a two-income family may not be as immediately disastrous. The school sends forms out in the summer that include applications for assistance of various kinds, so it is likely “the fall will tell us more.”

Bright spots remain

There are some positive signs for Carlisle. Larry Bearfield of Ferns Country Store, which recently began an expansion, reports “Business has been slightly down but certainly not enough to cause us any alarm. Our customers cross multiple market channels (commuters, local townsfolk, tradespeople, cyclists, hikers, cross-country skiers, etc) so it all tends to offset one another.” He adds, “We’re definitely noticing the lack of construction going on in town which means that the drop in tradespeople is having an adverse effect on our weekday business.”

The good news is that “our weekend business has become significantly stronger. We’re getting a lot more traffic from folks from throughout the region. More are going to Great Brook State Park and the bicycle industry overall has mushroomed – so we’re getting a lot of that traffic.” Bearfield believes a harsh winter and cool spring may have had more impact, “while the economy hurt slightly - the weather tends to affect us more.”

High-end real estate selling

Assessor Melissa Stamps says that on the real estate front, “Things are looking up here, especially for higher-end homes.” She notes that five new homes sold within the past couple of weeks, with two or three more about to sell. Several lots at Hanover Hill sold, and more are being cleared. A home on Skelton Road was started recently, and two or three homes were purchased to be torn down for new houses. “They are selling,” she says, noting “There’s been some reduction, but prices are tracking close to assessment.” The harsh weather has had a negative effect, but “It appears there’s more growth coming. We’ll see in the next month or so.”

Phyllis Cohen, director of marketing at Keller Williams in Concord, observes, “It’s interesting that Hanover Hill has taken off as it has. Obviously, these are people who are secure with their wealth or employment and recognize that this is a good time to buy into Carlisle.” She notes that the builder is marketing an incentive land purchase price, and this seems to have moved some buyers to act. “People who buy in Carlisle are buying into a quality lifestyle and feel secure in their investment,” she says.

Baliestiero says, “The buyers that are coming to town are often coming from condos closer to the city or starter homes, and they are usually young families wanting to get into the school system and take advantage of the quality of life Carlisle has to offer. We see very few first time buyers and almost no one buys a house in Carlisle to retire in.”

Adds Cohen, “As the election passed and the economic stimulus became known, coupled with the softening of home prices and outstanding interest rates, buyers began returning to the market.” She adds, “This does not mean that home prices are rising. However, if a home is priced right, looks good and is exposed to the market it has an excellent chance of selling.” Cohen has noticed a burgeoning interest in mixed-use properties. “People are looking for ways to cut costs and make their homes work for them.”

She believes potential buyers are attracted to Carlisle because “there are so many beautiful homes on the market. Many of these homes would have been out of range for some buyers just a few years ago.” Current listings include 50 homes, a year’s worth of inventory at current selling rates, with listings from $299,000 to $3,590,000.

While some consume, others cut back

So while a few feel secure enough to buy million dollar homes, others in town cut back. There are reports that “Pass it Forward Day” had fewer donations this month, possibly because people are not making many new purchases. The community gardens at Foss Farms are rumored to be premium real estate because there is so much interest in growing your own food. According to Bob Dennison, who coordinates the community gardens, the plots were very popular this spring and a dozen applicants had to be turned away.

Smith worries that many are not receiving the assistance they need. While many programs have low-income limits, there are some without those restrictions. “More could take advantage,” she says, “but people are reluctant.” She encourages those in need to call, “The churches are extremely confidential, as we are [at the COA].” Rev. Miller agrees, “I would like to see [The Good Neighbor Fund] help more people in this economy.” She says people often assume there is someone whose needs are greater, but “go ahead and ask.” Barnett points to “an independent Yankee streak” and says that asking for help is not easy for Carlisleans not used to being “beholden.” “It’s very hard, whether young marrieds or seniors,” she says, but advises, “check shame at the door.”

If you are forced to sell a home in a down market, don’t despair, says Baliestiero, “A house priced well will sell. Buyers are all looking for value purchases and homes that are in move-in condition.” She adds, “Most buyers do not want to do any work, not even paint or any minor cosmetics.” Adds Cohen, “You need to price competitively to get in front of the selling curve. A seller does not want to play catch up in this market.” She notes that the wrong asking price can extend time on the market, and in the end result in a lower selling price. “Some people will say nothing is selling, but they may be looking at properties trying to catch up with the market rather than leading the market [in price].”

And for those who the downturn has not yet touched? Spare a thought for others, says Bearfield. “We do hear a lot of heartache,” he says. “Folks in town – our neighbors losing their jobs, businesses hurting, some folding up. It’s very real for them and the stories are tough. We all need to reach out.”

Information on resources for residents in need can be accessed at the town website: ∆

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