Secondhome owners’ counter-productive naivete

An explosion of angry letters from secondhome owners dominated the op-ed section of this week’s Provincetown “Banner.” They were miffed by an editorial calling secondhome owners “fair-weather friends” and making a connection between the secondhome market and homelessness [(which is seen as contributing to the recent death of a well-known local artist).

“These are hurtful statements” said one letter, pointing out that at least some secondhome owners visit in the off-season.

Hurtful the editorial’s allegations might be, and yes “fair-weather friends” is not as tactful a characterization as might be imagined. But it seems self-serving naivete for secondhome owners to play innocent about the main point: of course the secondhome market is responsible for putting housing out of reach of almost all locals not lucky enough to have bought their own place back when they were affordable.

As the “Banner” editorial suggested, the simple truth is that Outer Cape towns (such as my own of Wellfleet) are on a trajectory that, despite affordable housing efforts, has us headed where the likes of Aspen and the Hamptons have already gone. In Wellfleet, two-thirds of all the houses are empty for two-thirds of the year. The day is imaginable when there will be no more friction between locals and part-timers because there won’t be any locals left (except perhaps, as in Aspen, a worker ghetto for services).

Of course secondhome owners are not to blame, individual by aggrieved individual, for the secondhome market. “Market forces” is an abstraction. But equally clearly they are agents of it, part of the situation.

They may not be responsible for the change; but they are the change.

Most letters by secondhome owners start by protesting their deep love for Provincetown. And there is no reason to doubt that genuine affection is in most cases an important reason why they have invested in this charming town. And no question, as they point out, as the majority of owners they pay most of the taxes. Some contribute to some local causes, including affordable housing. But if they want to really help address the housing problem, which some of the letter-writers say they do, a start to cooperation would be acknowledging that, love or no love, insofar as the secondhome market is a problem, secondhome owners are part of that problem.

Helping might require a little socialist inclination on their part, a willingness to spread the wealth, to allow, for instance, differential taxation, widely used elsewhere to ameliorate effects of the secondhome market. But they complain bitterly about that. “We all share the full-time residents’ desire to build the town’s year-round economy and fix its housing problem.” But not in addressing the secondhome market. One letter-writer purports to be “insulted” by the movement to tax part-timers at a higher rate. “It feels un-American, even. We live in a capitalistic system where, with fortitude, hard work, and a little luck you can … afford [your] home in our beloved Provincetown.”

The writer seems unaware of the irony of that sentiment. Being seriously interested in making money is one reason, as a friend pointed out, by way of sympathizing with secondhome owners, part-timers prefer living elsewhere: moving here fulltime would mean subjecting themselves to the local, seasonal version of capitalism—including the secondhome market.

Secondhome owners want to help, but in Wellfleet non-residents packing a selectmen’s meeting was the main reason a differential tax proposal was shot down recently.

It’s a Catch-22 situation: divisiveness is not helpful but neither is wishful thinking about all those packing the town on a summer day constituting one big, happy, Ptown-loving community. Most of us were part-timers ourselves once. Some of one’s best friends are secondhome owners. (And we certainly can’t afford to alienate the largesse of part-timers.) But it would be progress for secondhome owners to drop the outraged innocence about the reality of what’s happening to our towns.

The small Canadian province of Prince Edward Island, long worried about the impact of absentee landowners, some time ago acted to attack the problem by enacting laws to strongly discourage secondhome ownership.
Secondhome owners’ counterproductive naivete

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