PROVINCETOWN — When Relish owner Frank Vasello opened his West End deli and bakery in 2001, attracting customers was his main concern. Now, it’s finding staff. The trouble, Vasello says, is housing.
Provincetown has 108 food service establishments, most small and seasonal, like Relish. Vasello and other small business owners say the flow of summer workers has been slowing for some time because of rising housing costs. Housing was already the number-one challenge cited in a local economic development analysis conducted by Camoin Associates, a municipal consulting firm hired by the town in 2019.
Now, after a Covid-inspired boom in the short-term rental market on the Outer Cape, seasonal housing appears to be both more scarce and more expensive than ever.
This year, Vasello says, it’s not just the summer kids who are vanishing because wages won’t cover the rent. Half of Vasello’s existing team is still struggling to secure stable housing.
Even Vasello himself, who is a renter, worries he’ll lose his apartment.
Frank Vasello, Owner
Vasello and his husband, Nathan Butera, are bears, with a cuddly side. They did a photo shoot together in which they posed nude — and covered in pretty nonpareils.
Vasello has rented the same house for 19 years. It’s the first place he landed when he came to Provincetown to take over what is now Relish. At first, he lived in the cottage on the property, then moved into another unit. Since he and Butera, a filmmaker who recently became a real estate agent, got together eight years ago, they have rented the main house.
Vasello said the landlord has assured him he won’t sell anytime soon. But with this hot real estate market, Vasello said, it’s hard to feel secure.
“The market is like a carrot, dangling in front of people,” he said. “So, I have been worried. We can pay rent. But there is nothing to rent.”
The issue is not just expensive rentals but almost no inventory, he said. Buying into the market here is not easy: the median sales price of a Provincetown condo is currently $623,500. Four years ago, a UMass Dartmouth housing study concluded that an annual income of $141,000 was necessary to buy a condo here. If you can’t do that, renting is your only option.
Vasello and Butera know a lot about this, both because they made the mini-series Off-Season in 2016, with local actors, and because Butera is a trustee of Year-Round Rental Housing Trust. Tenants of the town-owned Harbor Hill complex pay market-rate rent based on income. One of Relish’s staff members, a young father who did not want to participate in this story, lives in one of the 28 units there. The complex has a waiting list.
At 57, Vasello worries that his body isn’t up for the 80-hour work weeks any longer. But there are only six people on staff, and he needs at least four more full-time by summer. In interviews with potential hires, he says his first question is not “What’s your experience?” but “Do you have a place to live?”
He’s already reduced Relish’s hours and cut four sandwiches from the menu, and he may decide to close one day a week, even in high season, so his staff can rest. That means losing out on what promises to be a summer of record-breaking crowds.
Sue Hale, Baker
Hale, 57, left the Boston area 16 years ago to come to Provincetown. A baker since 1993, she previously worked in computer systems analysis, but “I didn’t like the boring meetings and sitting at a desk,” she said.
In Provincetown, she baked at Far Land Provisions for 12 years. Since joining Relish four years ago, she’s been working 5 a.m. to closing. Ten-hour days are par for the course.
“We all get along so well,” she said of her coworkers. “We laugh a lot, but we also have the same work ethic. When we get busy, there is good, positive energy.”
Hale is fit. Living in Provincetown allows her to bike and walk everywhere. In Relish’s tiny kitchen, she hauls 80-pound bags of flour and leans into industrial-size rolling pins. She measures flour and watches cupcakes turn golden in the convection oven, and then bikes home in the late afternoon.
Provincetown has given her a charmed existence she never dreamed possible growing up in Yonkers, N.Y. or as a young adult in the Boston suburbs. Outside Relish, the West End glitters on a sunny day. But recently, Hale is feeling the dark side of the town. Her landlord sold her studio apartment in early spring. The closing was May 15. She had to pack up her belongings and move out on May 13.
It’s the first time Provincetown’s housing crisis has hit her life directly, and, she said, it’s scary.
“I have confidence something will work out,” said Hale. “Because this is my home now and I don’t want to leave.”
She has talked to everyone she knows, and “put it out there” that she’s in need. She would gladly move into Harbor Hill, but there is no room.
Her plan for the summer is to stay in a friend’s spare bedroom, then perhaps with another friend in the fall. Leaving the social circle she has formed here is unfathomable. “I’m hoping the real estate market will calm down,” she said.
Mark Buchholz, Chef
Buchholz, 56, has been with Relish since he first arrived in Provincetown in 2008. First, he baked at both Relish and Connie’s Bakery. He trained as a pastry chef, but he now makes the sandwiches, takes orders, bakes, cleans, and takes care of anything else that needs attention.
“I am very fortunate to own property,” Buchholz said.
But that doesn’t mean it’s been easy. When Buchholz left Boston, where he was an office assistant in a law firm, he and his partner sold their place in the city and moved to a condominium on Provincetown’s Franklin Street. A year later, his partner died unexpectedly at age 60, leaving Buchholz with a big mortgage.
In 2019, the nonprofit Institute for Community Health found that 48 percent of home owners and 64 percent of renters in Provincetown spent more than 30 percent of their income on housing and are thus considered housing-cost-burdened.
For years, Buchholz could not refinance because of his debt-to-income ratio. “Banks would not even look at me,” he said. “I could have moved; I could have sold. But I didn’t want to leave. And if I sold, I would have not been able to afford to buy anything here again.”
About a month ago, he was finally able to refinance. As one of the two on staff to own a home, Buchholz does “take in a few employees from time to time,” when there are no other options.
Christian Charette, Counterman
Christian Charette, 68, said his Arabic isn’t too good, but he is fluent in French and English, and his German is “pretty close.”
A native of Canada, Charette came to the U.S. in 1982 and became a diplomat with the U.S. State Dept. in 2002. He’s lived in Morocco, Beirut, Brussels, Yemen, and Kosovo.
In 2014, Charette and his husband retired in Provincetown. They own two condominium units on Conant Street. They could fetch $2,000 per week for one unit, but they are committed to renting year-round — for less than that each month. That gives them a tax break of $1,300 a year, which is hardly worth the hassle, he said. But they don’t do it for the money. “We’re doing it to help,” he said.
Another way Charette helps, he said, is work. It’s only two days a week, and “I know Frank would like me to work more.” So many retirees, now bored and lonely, could work a small amount and make a tremendous difference keeping the community alive, he said. “It gets you out of the house and you get to interact with so many interesting people.”
There is one other staff member at Relish, a young U.S. citizen in town specifically to work 80 to 100 hours a week for the summer. He declined to be identified. He is living in an apartment provided for its staff by the Canteen, where he also works. But the apartment has been promised to someone else for the summer and he has nowhere to go.