Russ Allen: The Problem With Our Problems Is The Problems

Though a special place, Cape Cod has problems that towns, their institutions, and above all its residents need to fix. Complex and difficult to understand, faced with conflicting and sometimes self-serving solutions, the problems often make me feel lost. Learning their nature and getting a handle on proposals to address them can set my head spinning. Official activities of town meetings, boards of selectpersons and of education, and other governmental agencies can make the process top heavy. Professional, business and private interests get involved when proposals are seen as impinging on them. As a citizen of Harwich who may have to pay part of the cost for, and be impacted personally by any solution, I feel I have little say about what is happening in my town.

The pyramid labeled “The Problems of Cape Cod” is insurmountable and I believe The Problem With Our Problems Is The Problems Themselves.

But what problems? Listing them can also be overwhelming. Immigration, gun violence, racism, economic stability and inequality, and the environment, while national in nature, impact the Cape and are of concern to its residents. The Opioid Crisis, quality education, repairing and building new infrastructure, affordable and accessible healthcare, and support for local and regional programs, though addressed by the Commonwealth, effect life here. Any problems present in Harwich and other towns this side of the bridges are very much ours to address.

What are those problems? Without undue detail:

  1. Affordable and adequate housing.

  2. Ensuring a living minimal wage.

  3. Managing adequate and affordable healthcare.

  4. Environmental protection.

  5. Emergency preparedness.

  6. Exodus of young adults and professionals.

  7. Quality Public Education.

  8. Municipal infrastructure.

  9. Overdevelopment.

  10. Substance abuse.

That I could add others underlines the fact that our problems can be overwhelming however much I try to understand, address, and resolve them. Nevertheless, those problems will not solve themselves.

Among the difficulties we face trying to fix our problems is their often-hidden aspects. Take, for instance, No. 9, overdevelopment. Growth in housing, population and land use on Cape Cod is out of control, resulting in No. 4, environmental protection, being threatened and No. 1, affordable and adequate housing, seemingly beyond reach. However, overdevelopment (especially for large or second homes) allows the Cape’s construction and real estate businesses to thrive while town budgets benefit from increased property tax revenues. The current developments in East Harwich and construction of multi-story apartment buildings in Hyannis are not intended to lessen this problem. This reality will hinder any incentive to halt overdevelopment until there no longer is the land needed to build more housing Cape Cod.

Affordable and adequate housing and No. 2, a living minimum wage, are in some ways two sides of the same problem. People who do not earn above the minimum wage cannot afford adequate or even appropriate housing, both of which are limited resources in Harwich. Most Cape towns have adopted plans for addressing the first, and Habitat for Humanity is doing yeoman’s work creating new affordable homes. But, as mentioned above, the Cape’s housing construction and modification businesses focus on homes that people with low incomes cannot afford. Solving No. 1 will require fixing No. 2, along with lowering often arbitrary property values and making changes in the real estate business and zoning laws, so that more people can afford to rent or own a home in Harwich.

This applies especially to J-1 Visa holders, upon whom the Cape’s tourist industry depends. Here to experience American life and culture, most visa holders spend the summer working two or more jobs at minimum wage in order to live in housing that is sometimes inadequate. Recent proposals for addressing this situation in Harwich, while well intended, need serious examination, but so also does the Cape’s tourist business’ dependence on these students.

The process for managing our problems can be streamlined and made more successful, if two key elements are present:

  1. A belief that our problems can and should be addressed now.

  2. A consensus as to how that can be accomplished.

The larger the number of citizens who get involved and the greater their diversity, along with the mutual respect necessary for people to work successfully together, will make it easier to solve even the most difficult problems.

I am not an urban planner, a retired executive for a large corporation nor a civic leader. I am a 12-year citizen of Harwich who has been observing and writing about my home town for almost five years. That experience has convinced me that if we are to solve our problems and preserve the integrity of our community, we have to do things differently.

Cape Cod and Harwich are wonderful places to live. But both have problems that keep their full potential from being realized by all their citizens. We can change that – we can fix that – if we believe we can, and have the will to do so. Mark Twain once said, “Those who believe they can, will. Those who believe they cannot, are right.”