PROVINCETOWN — After discussing how quickly to raise rents at the town-owned Harbor Hill apartments at their meeting on Oct. 30, the members of Provincetown’s Year-Round Market-Rate Rental Housing Trust were met with something unusual at their Nov. 15 meeting: an audience.
Eighteen people appeared for the meeting, and 12 spoke when the floor was opened for public comments. All worried that major rent increases could push tenants out of Harbor Hill — and out of Provincetown.
“Everyone was really excited at the last few town meetings that all these efforts were being passed for new housing,” said Mikey LaBruna, a Harbor Hill tenant. “Hearing news of a possible 30- to 40-percent increase in rent was disappointing.”
“There are restaurant workers, hotel workers, members of town hall, two people at Outer Cape Health Services, and at least three skilled nurses at the nursing home at Seashore Point” living at Harbor Hill, said tenant Chris Cardia. “I hope when you’re going through all your numbers, you take in the benefit the residents provide.”
Elizabeth Brooke, owner of Gabriel’s Provincetown Hotel, spoke about two families who live at Harbor Hill. “The adults work for me at Gabriel’s, their children go to Provincetown Schools, and I consider them my extended family,” Brooke said. “They work very, very hard. If they lost their housing because they couldn’t afford their rent any longer, I wouldn’t have my family and I wouldn’t have any employees.”
The possibility of a steep increase was raised after the trustees asked the nonprofit group that manages the apartments, the Community Development Partnership (CDP), based in Orleans, to help identify a true “market-rate” rent.
A severe lack of market-rate rentals on the Outer Cape is the reason the trust was created in the first place, and that shortage has made defining market-rate rents difficult.
Cindi Maule, the CDP’s property manager for Harbor Hill, “called in a favor” to get access to a federal Dept. of Housing and Urban Development database, she told the trustees.
Trust chair Austin Miller provided the Independent with the figures Maule was referring to. They were produced by GoSection8.com for the Housing Assistance Corporation of Cape Cod and show a market-rate rent of $1,909 per month for a one-bedroom unit, $2,400 a month for a two-bedroom unit, and $3,025 per month for a three-bedroom unit.
That rent schedule is 25 percent higher overall than the rents that are currently being charged at Harbor Hill. Tenants in eight of the two-bedroom units are currently paying $1,938 per month and would be facing a $462 increase if the rents moved to that market-rate schedule; tenants in another six two-bedroom units are paying $1,716 per month and would see their rent increase by $684.
The trust has already applied the $2,400 rate to a two-bedroom unit that is currently vacant — but members disagreed sharply on Oct. 30 about whether and how it should move existing tenants toward that rate.
“I would ask at the next meeting that we get up to market, because they’ve already gotten a subsidy from the town,” said trustee Cass Benson.
Provincetown Housing Specialist Michelle Jarusiewicz said that would mean an increase of 30 percent or more for some tenants.
“For a long time, they’ve had a great break,” Benson replied, “and I think it’s time to get real. If people are truly making over $75,000 per year, this rent is not going to break them.” That number is about 90 percent of the area median income, and Harbor Hill was set up to serve people earning 80 to 200 percent of area median income.
“I do not feel good about that,” said trust chair Austin Miller. “I think we’d be putting people out on the street.”
The trustees agreed to discuss the issue at their next meeting on Nov. 15 — but agreement was not much easier to find that day. Trustee David Gardner began the discussion by asking how the CDP’s market-rate rent figures had been developed.
“We’ve never had good market-rate rental data in Provincetown,” said Jay Coburn, CEO of the CDP. “It’s extremely challenging. The market study that The Community Builders did in preparation for their 3 Jerome Smith project found market-rate rents significantly lower than the rents at Harbor Hill.
“I would really like to urge the town to modify its rental registration application to ask owners to report what they’re charging for rent so we can get some Provincetown-specific data,” Coburn added.
The Community Builders, a nonprofit that develops affordable housing, hired real estate advisers from Bonz and Company to assess market-rate rents in Provincetown in 2022. Their study was based on rental properties that were mostly on the Mid- and Upper Cape — the nearest properties were in Hyannis — and they estimated market-rate rents to be $1,480 for a one-bedroom unit in Provincetown, $1,875 for a two-bedroom, and $2,130 for a three-bedroom.
Almost 80 percent of Harbor Hill’s 28 units are two-bedrooms. The rents arrived at by Bonz and Co. for a two-bedroom unit are $525 lower than those suggested by the GoSection8.com report.
“We were told we had good data, and now you’re saying it’s not,” Benson said to Coburn. “If the town’s going to do more of these market-rate rental projects, we are going to see a lot more attention paid to what market-rate rent really is.”
A third project that was not discussed at the meeting — an upcoming 40-unit market-rate rental project at the old police station site on Shank Painter Road — offered yet another take on market-rate rents last summer. The developers of that project, Christine Barker and M. Tatiana Eck, proposed a rent schedule of $1,675 to $2,000 for a studio apartment, $2,500 to $2,750 for a one-bedroom, and $3,000 for a two-bedroom apartment.
Gardner said that the trust is allowed to define market-rate rent for itself and that even discussing 40-percent increases was irresponsible.
“The community does not feel that we can’t afford this project,” Gardner said. “I don’t think the rent needs to necessarily cover the capital, and it’s an untenable situation for a town board to be pushing people out of housing.”
“I find that offensive,” said trustee Meg Stewart. “I have no interest in kicking anyone out of their home.” The town has a rental-assistance program that could help tenants who can’t afford a rent increase, Stewart said, while “people who can afford the increases pay the increases.”
“We have recently increased the income limit for the rental assistance program,” said Town Manager Alex Morse. “I would also say the goal at Harbor Hill was less focused on what the rents would be and more focused on the incomes of people who live and work in town. The trust has to look at revenue and expenses, but the town does have a lot of resources at its disposal.”
Miller said that the CDP is still implementing a 5-percent rent increase that the trust voted for last spring, since the units each have different lease renewal dates that are spread across the calendar.
“I don’t think there’s any action or motions we need to take today” to alter that planned increase, Miller concluded. The discussion of rents at Harbor Hill ended without a vote.