Cape towns need to “commit to a fundamental reimagining of what we are willing to do,” Senator Cyr is quoted in this paper a few days ago, “or we will not have year-round sustainable communities.” “Fundamental reimagining” is a challenging phrase. What might he mean by that?
At Wellfleet town meeting on this coming Saturday, a big item will be ADU’S (Accessory Dwelling Units) whose purpose is to “enable an increase of year-round rental housing opportunities…to support a stable and diverse year-round community and a robust local workforce.”
We will also be voting on money for the next step in implementing the town’s ambitious affordable housing project, already approved.
At Nantucket’s recent town meeting a proposal to greatly limit short-term rentals was soundly defeated. The argument for the proposal was that vacation rentals were “hollowing out” the local community.
But the argument that won the day was also about preserving local life as such, seeing short-term rentals as essential to allowing locals to afford life on the island.
All these efforts are about preserving our towns as “sustainable communities”, to use Senator Cyr’s phrase. Attempts, with increasing urgency, to keep our towns functioning like real towns in the traditional sense.
And until 40 years ago or so Wellfleet was not only a beautiful but an affordable town, the housing market not much different from, say, towns in rural Massachusetts or Connecticut not known as tourist destinations.
Despite strenuous efforts on the part of affordability advocates, we have over decades drifted inexorably, it seems, toward unaffordability and unsustainability.
Now with a pandemic-inspired housing market called “crazy” and “frenzied,” median house prices jumping 25% to as much as 74 % (in Chatham) in one year, houses being bid up a huge chunk of the asking price, finding year-round housing has become unprecedently difficult.
I don’t know what Senator Cyr might mean by “ fundamental reimagining” but possibly something above and beyond current efforts at building and encouraging affordable housing.
One version of such a radical reformulation of the problem would be, first, declaring the secondhome market clearly, as it has lon g been seen anyway, as the enemy of a sustainable community and towns in the traditional sense.
Second, the most direct way of fighting market forces would be to ban or discourage sales of houses to people who don’t intend to live here fulltime. It would be a form of redlining to exclude not minorities but only people who did not mean to become the sort of fulltime resident a town needs to be a town.
When the picturesque Puerto Rican island of Vieques was discovered by millionaires wanting a second home in the paradise being described in a spate of New York times travel pieces, hand-painted signs appeared whose Spanish translated roughly: “don’t sell your patrimony to outsiders.” I remember thinking at the time that that message addressed more directly the problem than my own town of Wellfleet shared with it than we dared to.
Around the same time I heard from a longtime vacationer in Prince Edward Island that, to protect something precious to them about local life, that Canadian province had passed a law that banned or limited sales to secondhome owners.
But wait. Do we have the right to take on “market forces” directly to preserve a “stable and diverse year-round community and a robust local workforce” as the Wellfleet town meeting warrant puts it?
Wouldn’t redlining against part-time owners and investors be illegal? Is there a way it could be done legally?
A big problem of course is that limits on marketing would prevent year-round owners who, house rich and house p oor, have a large part of their net worth wrapped up in their houses, from realizing top dollar to be made selling to the hedge fund manager living in New York.
It would be unrealistic to expect local year-round homeowners to bear the financial burden alone of keeping our town viable. Could local owners be compensated by some sort of fund created to “keep Wellfleet real”?
The very phrase “market forces” suggests inexorable laws operating beyond mere human influence. (Actually market forces are nothing but people wanting what they want. )
A “fundamental reimagining” might start with asserting that we who live here have a right to preserve our local life in the form of towns in the traditional sense. And that if we are to do that, we need to stop thinking of market forces as inexorable.
Brent Harold, a Cape Cod Times columnist and former English professor, lives inWellfleet. Email him at email@example.com.