PROVINCETOWN — With Hanukkah already underway and Christmas less than a week off, Monday night was not the most likely time to find 60 people at a meeting on housing. Nonetheless, on Dec. 19 the select board, community housing council, and Year-Round Market-Rate Rental Housing Trust met with town staff, the housing directors of Vail, Colo., Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket, and several dozen members of the public for a three-hour session about the gravity of the crisis here and new ways to address it.
The first hour featured a presentation from George Ruther, housing director in the resort town of Vail, which began an ambitious community housing program in 2017.
“For the town of Vail, housing has been a decades-long problem,” Ruther said. In 2017, the town council decided they were tired of talking. “They wanted to do something direct and specific about it,” he said.
Vail created and staffed a housing department in town government and a housing authority to oversee it, Ruther said. The town defined a new type of deed restriction that does not involve income limits or resale rules but instead requires that the actual occupant of the unit (not necessarily the owner) live and work in the county. Then, the town set a goal of 1,000 new deed-restricted units in the next 10 years.
Vail now has 175 of those deed-restricted units, Ruther said, housing 390 people. The total cost has been just over $12 million, with a per-unit cost around $69,000. Last year, the town’s voters approved a dedicated half-percent increase in the town’s sales tax, Ruther said, which will generate almost $4 million per year specifically for the town’s housing program.
“We’re using the housing stock we already have to address our housing challenge,” Ruther said. “We see this as a very cost-effective program.”
Vail and its neighboring resort towns had already been using inclusionary zoning to get affordable units into new projects, Ruther said, and pursuing conventional affordable developments as well, but those strategies had not been enough. Ninety percent of homes in Vail were being sold to people who don’t live in the county, and without enough people to work, it was becoming impossible to maintain the town’s economy.
“We believe housing is critical infrastructure,” Ruther said. Vail now funds its housing programs at the same priority level as its roads, schools, and emergency services.
After a half hour of detailed questions from board members and staff, Ruther signed off, and the workshop switched gears to public comments. Twenty people spoke over the course of the next hour. Collectively, their comments were both a push toward bold action and a bracing reminder of the human costs of a housing crisis.
Heather Duncan, a physician’s assistant at Outer Cape Health Services, broke into tears while telling the workshop that her patients’ traumatic experiences of displacement were now happening to her as well.
“One of my patients who was working three jobs here had to leave when her place was sold and the new owners wanted to Airbnb it out,” Duncan said. “She said something I will never forget: ‘I don’t know what will happen to me.’
“Now it’s my turn,” Duncan went on. “For the second time this year, I need to find a new place to live, and I do not know what will happen to me. I want to explain to you how it feels to live with housing insecurity — it’s terrifying. You stop sleeping at night. It feels like a massive rejection by the community you worked so hard to support. You’re spoken about like a beggar, or even worse — ‘Not in my back yard’ — as though the people who serve you in restaurants or treat you in the clinic when you’re sick are not worthy of living in your community.
“I know what this community is capable of. I know its history. There is creativity and brilliance here,” Duncan said through tears. “I live in my dream community, but after the holidays I strongly suspect I will need to tender my resignation at the clinic, abandon my post, and leave Provincetown.”
Dana Masterpolo, chair of the planning board, asked the town’s leaders to have courage. “Not everything is popular, but it’s time to try something,” she said.
Michael Gaucher said that Hawaii, Palm Springs, and New Orleans have all put short-term rental restrictions in place, and he asked the town to place a moratorium on new short-term rentals. He also asked the select board to consider a zoning map to define where short-term rentals are allowed and for a new rule that 50 percent of all newly constructed units be deed-restricted to prohibit short-term rentals.
Seth Ohrn said that, as the new manager at Spindler’s restaurant, he was shocked to discover that J-1 students in Provincetown were “living in nothing short of squalor.
“These kids should not be sleeping on mattresses on the floor, with broken windows and no screens,” Ohrn said. No one is checking on the conditions in these rentals, he added.
“These kids are working three jobs per person, 5 a.m. to midnight,” said Ohrn. “They should have somewhere to go that’s not a mattress on the floor.”
Laura Silber, a housing planner for the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, said that she and Tucker Holland, the housing director for Nantucket, “wanted to offer our resources and our partnership as you guys work through this.
“We have just undertaken a short-term rental study, an evaluation to look at putting restrictions in place,” said Silber. “I’m really curious to see where you guys head with this, and we’d be happy to share information.”
Building an Agenda
After hearing the public’s comments, the three boards got to work trying to build an agenda for town meeting. The warrant will need to be finalized early in March, said Town Manager Alex Morse, so time is already running short.
“I’m grateful to the select board and the town manager for finally taking housing by the horns,” said Cass Benson, a member of the Year-Round Rental Housing Trust. “I feel like the housing committees need stronger taskmasters. We’re just groups of people that show up once a month.
“There’s been this void in housing for 10 or 20 years now,” Benson continued. “We need more help — like a housing czar.”
At the end of the meeting, Morse listed several areas for further work, including a deed restriction program, short-term rental regulations, and a housing production goal. Select board member Leslie Sandberg added improvements to bus and shuttle services to the list, and board member Louise Venden said the town should use its bylaws to make evicting tenants to make way for condos much more difficult.
With that much on the agenda, time could be the most limited resource. Morse told the select board last week that if not everything is ready by March it would still be possible to call a special town meeting later in the spring or summer.