PROVINCETOWN — As golden autumn evenings turn into windy nights, a different kind of season ramps up on the Outer Cape: town government season. Articles for spring town meetings, from major projects to micro-proposals, are being hashed out now in town departments and volunteer committee meetings.
Based on the discussion at the first housing workshop of the season, held on Oct. 3, Provincetown is ready to consider solutions to the housing gap for seasonal workers and the regulation of short-term rentals.
Provincetown’s leaders are seeking to build on the success of their housing workshops last year, when joint meetings of three committees helped generate nine housing-related articles, all of which passed easily at town meeting in April.
Summer rentals for seasonal workers have grown incredibly scarce, to the point where many larger businesses have bought their own worker housing while smaller businesses vie for what remains but find little.
It’s a difficult problem for town government, though, because the state and federal government offer no money at all for seasonal housing. The U.S. government looks to house people permanently, and without support from above, town governments struggle to define the problem, much less identify potential solutions.
“We still don’t have any mechanism to solve the seasonal workforce problem,” said Nathan Butera, chair of Provincetown’s Year-Round Market-Rate Rental Housing Trust.
Butera said this was the first year he had directly rented housing for seasonal employees of his bakery — a two-bedroom unit for four people. He would have rented more, he told the group, but “there weren’t any to be had. Even if you wanted to shoulder that burden, you just can’t do it.
“We’re seeing businesses that are closed one or two days a week in high season — which is insane,” Butera added.
Several speakers pointed out that the town’s efforts to establish dialogue with the Chamber of Commerce and Provincetown Business Guild about seasonal housing needs have not been successful. Austin Miller, who is a member of both the Year-Round Rental Housing Trust and the community housing council, suggested that the town establish an advisory committee on seasonal housing, with some members of the business community appointed to serve on it.
“I don’t think the town is saying we don’t want to be helpful,” said Town Manager Alex Morse, “but we want a partner.” The town might be able to buy property for a dormitory project if there were a private entity to run it, Morse said.
“I think Austin’s point is a good one,” Morse said. “All our money is dedicated to year-round housing.” He encouraged the three committees present to think about how seasonal housing ought to fit into the town’s overall housing program.
Select board member John Golden also encouraged the group, although in starker terms.
“Some of these houses have 14, 15 kids living in them,” said Golden. “If there’s ever a fire, and all those kids are killed, it falls back on the town. We are shipping kids to Truro, to ride bicycles on the highway shoulder at one o’clock in the morning. It behooves us to help with this stuff, because the bottom line is, it comes back to the town.”
Assistant Town Manager Dan Riviello presented new data on short-term rentals from a company that helps governments measure and regulate them. (Town staff did not identify it, but based on contracts they described with the towns of Barnstable and Cambridge the company is Host Compliance.)
Initial findings show 1,283 unique short-term rental listings in town, estimated to be a 14-percent increase from the previous year, Riviello said.
Provincetown has only 660 short-term rental certificates on file.
(The market research website AirDNA.co, which aggregates data from Airbnb, VRBO, and Homeaway, shows a peak rental count of 1,130 active rentals in Provincetown in 2019 and 1,044 this year. But Host Compliance collects data from more than 60 different listing sites and includes more detailed information. It found about 240 listings that aren’t in AirDNA’s database.)
Rental certificates in Provincetown cost $300 for three years. Host Compliance recommends an annual short-term rental registration fee of around two times the median nightly rate, Morse said. Based on a median rate of $334 this September, that would suggest the town should ask for an annual registration fee of around $668.
“That’s upwards of $750,000 per year, when you do the math,” said Morse. “We can debate exactly what it would look like, but I think we’re leaving hundreds of thousands of dollars on the table that could be pumped into our housing efforts.”
Select board member Louise Venden said a change-of-use bylaw should be pursued to slow the loss of hotel and guesthouse rooms. Provincetown at one point had a change-of-use bylaw that imposed steep affordability requirements on any effort to convert a large hotel to condos, but that bylaw was superseded and replaced by the inclusionary bylaw in 2017.
Miller said that the town should set goals for housing production and also consider upzoning some areas for greater density.
“Especially as we expand sewer capacity, I think it will trigger an important conversation on upzoning,” said Miller. “I think every single-family home that is built on an empty parcel is a lost opportunity.”
Morse asked the boards to bring further ideas to the next housing workshop, which will be in December.
“The town is facing many of the same challenges that business owners are facing,” Morse said. “And if it’s tough now, imagine how it will be in 10 or 20 years.
“We’re not Nantucket,” Morse continued. “But we were meeting with their leadership a couple months ago, and they’re literally building a satellite city hall outside of Boston because they can’t find employees that can afford to live there. For us, it’s a decision. How are we going to meet that need for our own staff and deliver the services people expect from us?”