The dramatic loss of affordable housing on the Outer Cape has been called a “crisis” for more than 30 years. Naming it a crisis has not slowed the market forces that continue to push housing costs beyond the reach of more people every year.
Even before the pandemic, an influx of wealthy people sought the beauty, peace, recreation, and entertainment offered in our towns, generating a burst of development. Most new construction consisted of large single-family homes and condominiums tricked out with wine fridges, European appliances, and security systems. The laws of economics have been much more powerful than the few tools available to governments, creating what can no longer be called a crisis but has become chaos.
Housing chaos on the Outer Cape has created tribes of nomads of all ages and ethnicities who must move from one apartment, shared home, campsite, or winter rental to another, never sure how long they’ll be able to stay in one place. Tenants with many years in their apartments have been forced to join the wanderers.
Many year-round working and retired people have left the Outer Cape. As the number of modestly priced dwellings dwindled, prices for year-round housing escalated. Many of those working in essential public safety, education, hotel, and restaurant jobs were forced to consider moving farther up Cape and commuting longer distances or leaving altogether. These people love their communities, volunteer, embrace our shared values, and treasure their rental housing here.
Housing prices, like all other commodities, are driven by supply and demand. The types of housing built and renovated in an environment where construction costs have escalated by double digits for several years are dictated by the prices buyers and renters are willing to pay. Construction is capital intensive, so developers must carefully justify the cost and risks of creating new housing, especially on the Cape, where permitting and approvals are complicated and costly. Projects are small, with few economies of scale.
According to data for the five years 2017 to 2021 from the American Community Survey of the U.S. Census, the Outer Cape towns have seen modest increases in total dwelling units: 4 to 5 percent in Eastham, Truro, and Wellfleet and 11 percent in Provincetown. At the same time, rental vacancy rates have dropped by 93 percent in Provincetown, 69 percent in Wellfleet, and 14 percent in Truro. Average household income rose 84 percent in Provincetown, 75 percent in Truro, 48 percent in Wellfleet, and 29 percent in Eastham and has likely risen more in the last two years.
Each town faces a growing housing gap. Thousands of houses have been built in the last 20 years: the majority are summer homes, vacant for months every year. Year-round homes have been subdivided into condos for occasional use or summer rental. Small inns have been converted to single-family homes. There is vacant land suitable for development in some towns but a lack of adequate services and sewer infrastructure or public support for modestly priced housing to meet the demand. In Provincetown, where there is very little developable land, zoning and permitting laws have not overcome opposition to denser housing development.
Town leaders must not just prepare housing production plans; they must propose concrete actions, promote them to town meeting, and provide the expertise to achieve their housing goals. Most important, towns must actively seek partnerships with private and nonprofit housing developers. The most effective solution in each of our towns is to build more housing. Small developers are reluctant to make proposals because of the burdensome and costly approval process. Building more expensive homes offers developers less risk and greater profit. Overcoming nimbyism, entrenched attitudes, and entitled interests will require different approaches in each town, and strong leadership is essential for success.
Louise Venden served on the Provincetown Select Board from 2017 to 2023.