The Truro Health Dept. threatened in 2019 to close down the Truro Motor Inn where 50 people, including several children, were living in overcrowded motel rooms. Electric service designed for vacationers was running microwaves and hot plates. The septic system had failed.
The situation was not only sad but dangerous. Board of health member Peter Van Stratum said at an October 2019 hearing that the place should be condemned. “It is unsafe,” he said. “You have extension cords that are hot, OK?” To allow people to live there for two years while the property gets upgraded “is egregious on our part, on humanity’s part,” Van Stratum said.
But the health board did not close the inn because its members did not want the tenants to become homeless. “I’m looking at people in this room who need a place to live, and I cannot in good conscience put them out on the street,” board of health member Mark Peters said during that hearing. “So, with deep reservations, I’ll vote [to keep it open] and God have mercy on all our souls if something happens.”
It has been more than three years since Peters asked for God’s mercy, and nothing has happened at the Truro Motor Inn. Tenants are still living there, and the place has not been upgraded. The board of health voted to take the notoriously uncooperative owners of the inn, David and Carolyn Delgizzi of Weston, to Land Court to force them to do renovations and find alternative housing for the tenants. The legal proceedings have been dragging on since 2019.
But something has happened in Orleans. On Feb. 4, Kyi Odeen Bourne, age six, died in a fire at 177 Route 6A. It is right in the center of town. The owner, Peter Eli, had illegally converted the building into four apartments, which never got building, plumbing, and electrical inspections after the renovation was completed. The fire was caused by a malfunction in an electric fan, according to Orleans Fire Chief Geof Deering.
This tragedy adds urgency to Orleans’s pursuit of an inspection program for long-term rental units, which officials are preparing for this spring’s town meeting. Inspections won’t entirely protect tenants from greedy slumlords. But they’ll help. Right now, no such program for year-round rentals exists in Provincetown, Truro, or Wellfleet. Eastham, like many towns in Massachusetts, does have a rental inspection program.
All towns should have them. But, as Truro Health Agent Emily Beebe told me, there needs to be a way to work with landlords to create incentives for safe and affordable rentals. Inhumane housing, as any slumlord knows, is better than no housing at all.
In Ursula K. Le Guin’s haunting short story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” the prosperity and happiness of an entire town depend on the acute suffering of a single child, but any sense of outrage is dissipated by the townspeople’s feelings of powerlessness. Are we on the Outer Cape living in Omelas?