PROVINCETOWN — The Covid pandemic has been called the “great accelerator,” because it took existing trends, like working from home, and societal problems, like the spread of misinformation on social media, and jammed them in high gear.
Here on the Outer Cape, I have seen this acceleration in the subjects I cover. Our labor market was already breaking before Covid multiplied the pressure. Housing prices had already left local incomes far behind before a roaring stock market drove prices sky-higher. And a resolve to address both issues by building housing for people who work here already existed — but the pandemic has added a shot of political will and a lot of new money into that equation.
Local leaders are focused on housing because it touches every institution on the Outer Cape. It’s not just restaurants and retail shops that can’t find workers — it’s nonprofits, town governments, and health-care providers, too. There are human-sized holes in every organization: jobs that pay well, that have attracted great candidates who are eager to live here, but who have to decline regretfully a month later because they can’t find anywhere to call home.
The consequences are evident in daily life. When you can’t get an appointment with a doctor or dentist, it’s because many recruits never moved here. When the vet closes at noon, and you can’t find a plumber, and therapists and home health aides have an eight-month waiting list, it’s because we can’t house people with those jobs’ incomes anymore.
The market price for real estate here is based on short-term rental potential. Every property is a hotel-in-waiting, and workers have to compete with that revenue stream to stay here. It’s a competition the work force has been steadily losing since long before the pandemic.
The direct effect of the pandemic was to carve even more holes in the work force. Many parents had to stay home, and many immuno-compromised people did, too. Immigrant workers couldn’t get visas because U.S. embassies were closed. The J-1 visa shutdown alone cost the Outer Cape hundreds of summer employees.
Meanwhile, the sale price of a single-family home in Provincetown went up 50 percent in just two years. Condos went up 31 percent. A booming stock market helped drive the increase, as did the new work-from-home policies of major corporations.
Except that, this time, the crisis came with a change in consciousness. Expressions like “frontline workers” became common. The stress of employees was visible. Restaurants started closing midweek because they couldn’t keep up.
The “Provincetown Cluster” landed like a sucker punch in July and August. It left the town reeling, as if the wind had been knocked out of it. A dozen businesses had to close for a few days, simply because so many of their staff were out sick.
The town’s staffing crisis had gone from chronic to acute. But at the same time, money was starting to roll in to town hall.
Property tax assessments were going up. The new short-term rental tax brought in $2 million in just one year. New marijuana taxes generated another $600,000. The American Rescue Plan Act, passed by Congress in March 2021, sent another $300,000 to Provincetown.
The American Rescue Plan Act sent almost $5 billion to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which allocated $624 million of it to housing efforts. New federal legislation is stalled, but the most recent version of the Build Back Better bill contained $170 billion for housing.
The combination of new money in town coffers, and a new consciousness of how fragile the work force has become, has already changed the discussion here. Provincetown’s leaders are workshopping 10 housing articles for town meeting in April. They include a dedicated funding stream and a significant use of town-owned land for housing initiatives.
Provincetown’s disappearing work force is a problem 20 years in the making. It will be hard to build new units at a pace that can keep up with the loss of existing middle-class housing.
But there is currently a conjunction of money, interest, and a resolve to act — which means 2022 is going to be an important year for housing.