Sometimes the truth of a story is found between the lines, between the words, even. Not that the words are not true, but that there is a larger truth behind them. Sometimes what we think we are talking about is not really what we are talking about. And, sometimes, we become so accustomed to things as they are, so inured to the status quo, that we need a good jolt to get us to take off our blinders.
Two weeks ago there was a story in this newspaper about the precarious state of the now-famous house on the bluff at Ballston Beach (“Ballston ‘Boathouse’ Still Stands,” by Jasmine Lu). The article recounted the perilous condition of the house and the obstacles in the way of its rescue (now achieved).
In the course of absorbing the facts of the situation, we learn that the owners of the imperiled house, Thomas and Kathleen Dennis of Springfield, had recently purchased the abutting lot (for $2,340,000), and that “Besides the three houses at Ballston Beach, the Dennises own six other houses in Truro, including the controversial ‘Kline House’…”
Shaking my head, I turned the pages of the paper, and came upon another story: “Select Board Tables RTE Until 2023,” by Cam Blair. Here I learned — rather, was reminded — that in Truro 86 percent of all homes are owned by nonresidents (including the Dennises). The figures for Provincetown and Wellfleet are 63 percent and 74 percent, respectively. Eastham’s figure for nonresident home owners is a measly 55 percent, so that town’s leaders have decided to wait until that figure increases before taking action on any ameliorating legislation, like the residential tax exemption, for beleaguered residents.
More head shaking. What can you say about a community of people that exists around and among the largely unoccupied houses of its absent neighbors? It is a community, I know, because I am familiar with people living in all these towns who strive to keep things going. And I know that every town on the Cape is trying very hard — perhaps too little, too late — to remedy this dilemma. But what an out-of-kilter situation this is, and, combined with a seasonal tourist economy, what a ridiculous situation overall.
But, as I have said about other parts of our lives, we have simply learned to live with it.
And what can you say about a system in which one couple owns nine houses in Truro, none of which is their primary residence, while there are so many — including many working people — who have been forced to leave the Cape because of the dearth of affordable housing?
Income inequity is a fact of life that we have all just absorbed and accepted with one big shrug. But what is legal is not always ethical. The moral underpinnings of our existence are laid bare by financial forces out of our control. There was a time when our economy was local, based largely on fishing and whaling and the industries that served them. People lived here and sustained themselves and each other by their labors. And they welcomed the summer people who came to visit — and who eventually upset the apple cart.
So much has been written about these issues. Wiser minds than mine have grappled for solutions. The problem: we are inside the very economic system we need to fix. With all due respect to our hard-working town leaders, much of what is being proposed is mere tinkering. Hilary Mantel, in Wolf Hall, has Thomas Cromwell say, “When you are writing laws you are testing words to find their utmost power.” But how powerful would the words have to be to save our communities?
The house on the bluff at Ballston Beach was teetering over the edge, hanging in the wind, when it was trussed up from beneath with a collection of not-very-convincing boards and braces. They held, and the house was ultimately dragged back from the edge.
Can we do the same for ourselves?