In Wellfleet’s recent town meeting a speaker noted, as shocking evidence of the need for affordable housing, that “in last 25 years we have lost 62% of the young people in our town.” In a column a couple of years ago I raised the question “are Outer Cape towns dying?” I had seen an article in the Provincetown Banner about an affordable housing meeting in Truro at which an expert declared that in 20 years from then there would be only 35 “young adults” left in town.
“The big, ongoing story of our time is nothing less than the imminent demise of our towns,” I wrote.
A lot of Wellfleetians would agree that the youth drain, due to lack of affordable housing and jobs, the decline of the elementary school population to not much over a third of its peak in the mid-1990s., the aging of the town, the imminent prospect of turning entirely into a second home and retirement community do indeed add up to the dying of the town, at least as a metaphor.
But I was talking to a friend who was irritated by my use of the term “dying.” The population remains stable, he pointed out. Sure, that population is aging, but the town’s not dying. It’s just changing, going through the evolution every tourist destination goes through, ending with its very attractions creating a second home market which prices out locals.
There are of course retirement towns in which not only are there no naturally occurring young people but you can’t move there unless you’re 55 or older. There’s plenty of life of a retirement sort—lots of socializing at the pool, lots of golf getting played—but lively as that might be in its own way, it is not what a lot of Wellfleetians, even retired ones, have in mind as a real town . (Some of us, instead of “aging in place” here, make the decision to relocate to such communities.)
But “changing” certainly feels better than “dying” Why depress ourselves? Why quibble over a term?
Only, I guess, because if we could agree with the hard assessment that even if we are not dying, some version of a town we are fond of is dying, we could perhaps do something about it. We could convene a blue ribbon commission to at least acknowledge and confront the demographic facts..What is to be done? Is the dying—or changing—inevitable? Are there tourist towns like ours that have succeeded in fighting the natural forces of the marketplace?
Affordable housing is one important strategy. But it’s been actively pursued for many years now and has not succeeded so far in reversing the demographic trend. How much would it take?
Differential taxing is another obvious strategy, in which we have a nearby model in Provincetown.
An idea which confronts the second home market directly, reducing the amount of absentee ownership without increasing the number of houses in town, would be to figure out a way to enable residents, as we age out of our houses, to sell to sell only to younger, fulltime residents.
The Canadian province of Prince Edward Island quite a while ago tackled head-on the problem of too many absentee owners by enacting laws to discourage secondhome ownership.
Both affordable housing and differential taxing strategies have been effectively opposed by non-residents taxpayers through pressuring the Selectboard and threatening or bringing lawsuits. I would add another criterion to the definition of a living town: fulltime residents making decisions about what’s right for their town. (And yes, dealing with the seeming contradiction that in a tourist town you can’t alienate the part-timers by making them feel like second-class citizens, as they put it.)
Call it dying, or changing, one thing seems clear:: we will need to get a lot more creative and determined if we hope to reverse the current trajectory.