It was a shock to read in a recent news story a summary of an independent study on Truro’s future. “By 2035, Truro’s population of year-round residents is predicted to fall from 2,003 to 1337, with new home-buyers choosing seasonal or part-time occupancy . . . . the number of young adults is expected to fall to 35 individuals by 2035.”
Not 35% but 35 individuals. In less than a generation.
The study was part of a meeting titled “Preserving Truro: An Afffordable Community Housing Forum,” but from the statistics it seems likely that Truro will not in fact be preserved.] “The view is grim,”went the newspaper headline. Grim indeed.
What’s true of Truro is most probably true of other Outer Cape towns.
The big, ongoing story of our time is nothing less than the imminent demise of our towns.
As far back as 1995, over two-thirds of the houses of Wellfleet have been second homes, vacant about two-thirds of the year. And the ratio is only getting more lopsided. The elementary school population is disappearing at an alarming rate, shrinking from the mid-200s in the 1990s to the current number of 94. ( Eastham Elementary has gone from 355 to 177.)
I’m not talking about the death of our towns as we have known them, but towns by any definition that includes a significant percentage of fulltime residents. Of Wellfleet’s current fulltime population (plateaued for the past 15 or so years at 3000), many will not be replaced by other fulltime residents. And an increasing number of residents are those who moved here to retire.
Given the current trajectory, in 20 years, the houses will still be here, the beaches will be here, but as for the town as a town , in the words of Gertrude Stein, “there [won’t be] any there there.” The town that was will have been hollowed out and replaced by another form of life: part-time, recreational, retired. The process is already, as we know, well underway.
Is there anything that can be done? It will take massive amounts of affordable housing to make a significant dent in the problem. More along the lines of the 130 units proposed for the old driving range in Eastham that has caused such an uproar than the three Habitat houses planned for my own neighborhood (but stalled out in court by suits by abutters).
A disadvantage of such housing, as we see in the current battle in Eastham, is that it may carry the stigma of “housing project” instead of feeling well-integrated into the traditional town.
An idea which tackles the second home market problem directly, reducing the amount of absentee ownership without increasing the number of houses in town, would be to figure out a way to enable those of us lucky enough to have bought back when housing was more affordable to transfer our houses, as we age out of them, to people who will also live in them fulltime, rather than to would-be secondhome buyers.
( Of course local owners who are concerned about the unaffordability created by the second home market are also comforted by the nesteggs our houses have become. Which of us can afford to ignore the secondhome market? A friend who suggested this idea envisions an enabling “entity” of some sort. It will take some ingenuity on our part.)
We may be able to learn something from the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island, which quite a while ago tackled headon the problem of too many absentee owners by enacting laws to discourage secondhome ownership.
One thing seems clear: we will need to get a lot more creative and determined if we hope to keep younger, working families in town and reduce the percentage of houses vacant most of the year.