CHATHAM – For the past month, the hottest topic in town has been a letter to the editor headlined “Why Pay To Keep Young Families In Chatham?”
The letter from Beverly Nelson, a Natick resident with a second home in Chatham, sparked a passionate response that went viral, spreading through social media and becoming the subject of conversation in coffee shops and town committee meetings. The Boston media even picked it up.
Members of the Chatham 365 task force – charged by selectmen with investigating ways to maintain a sustainable year-round population that includes all age groups – want to harness that energy and direct it toward finding positive solutions.
“I don't know that there has ever been such a hot and important issue that has been in the forefront of people's hearts and minds,” task force member Brett Tolley said during the group's first meeting last Wednesday.
While there have been discussions about ideas that could provide immediate relief for families having a hard time making ends meet – specifically a town-sponsored child care subsidy – tackling the wider issue of sustaining a diverse population will require time and planning. In the short term, task force members agreed holding a public forum to capitalize on the momentum created by Nelson's letter would be a good starting point.
“You've got to invite people to take ownership of their town and to participate in the political process,” said Karolyn McClelland, a member of the town's affordable housing committee. “The inspiration from Beverly Nelson
should be, if you want to take ownership of your town, you have to participate.”
Nelson's letter, published in the Dec. 13 Chronicle, was a reaction to a proposal for the town to provide vouchers to families to help pay for child care and preschool. She objected to the idea that the vouchers would be available to all and not be based on financial need. She also questioned affordable housing and other efforts to help those who cannot afford to live here stay in town. People should live where they can afford to live, she wrote.
Many reacted to the letter by pointing out that a major reason young families can't afford to live in Chatham is that real estate prices have been driven up by second homeowners, many of whom depend on locals for services. Those services, from landscaping to restaurant service, are increasingly delivered by people who live elsewhere. Even those who make a good living can't afford to live in town; at a recent meeting, planning board member Robert Dubis said many of the employees of his construction company, J.W. Dubis and Sons, have to live off Cape because they can't afford local housing prices.
“There are many people here that won't admit we have a problem, or don't believe we have a problem,” Selectman Peter Cocolis said at last Wednesday's meeting. Selectman Shareen Davis, who also serves on the task force, said the town has worked to enhance its infrastructure and preserve its character, but just as well-intentioned regulations devastated the commercial fishing industry, Chatham's success is causing hardship to many locals.
“We're losing some of the heart of the town,” she said.
Task force member Lindsay Bierwirth has been working on refining the child care voucher idea, initially proposed by the town's economic development committee several years ago and based on a program in place in Wellfleet. The proposal would provide families with pre-K children with $6,000 to help cover the cost of day care or preschool, with a total projected cost of $180,000. That would cover vouchers for 30 children. This year's kindergarten enrollment at Chatham Elementary School is 35; Principal Robin Millen said she'll have an idea of next year's enrollment by March. School officials have projected the numbers will remain about the same or decline in the coming years.
The town currently provides vouchers for child care for families with children up to 14 years old, said Theresa Malone, director of Monomoy Community Services, which administers the program. Since MCS took over the program three years ago, the number of participating families has more than doubled to about 16. This year's budget was $17,500, with plans to increase funding to $25,000 next year, she said.
“I think the need has been there a long time,” she said, noting that monthly child care costs for some families can equal car or even mortgage payments. Underwriting child care costs can be a “stabilizer in a community,” she said.
Under the current program, anyone can apply, and although applicants must provide financial information there is no income cutoff, Malone said. Whether the proposed voucher program should be based on financial need or offered to all families is still a point of debate, but the board of selectmen generally supports the concept, said Chairman Dean Nicastro. Bierwirth will give the board an update in the coming weeks, and it's possible the proposal could be ready in time for a vote at the May annual town meeting, Nicastro said.
“It doesn't solve the problem” of sustaining a diverse population, said Bierwirth. “But with two children, that's going to put money back in your pocket and take the burden off or go to a downpayment.”
“It's probably a good start” at getting at the sustainability issue, Nicastro said.
“It's not an amount of money the town is unwilling to spend in other areas,” pointed out Luther Bates, chairman of the economic development committee. He noted that the number of young kids in town hasn't changed much from when he was that age, while other things, particularly the cost of housing and real estate, have changed significantly. Housing and employment, and their inter-relation, are the more difficult issues to tackle, and that will be the EDC's focus, perhaps in conjunction with the Chatham 365 task force.
“Maybe two entities working on similar problems can approach the problems in a different way,” said Bates.
The town recognized this problem in the past, said task force member William Bystrom. In the late 1980s town land was used to build 36 affordable houses off Stony Hill Road specifically targeted to working families. He suggested the task force may want to look at a similar approach while remaining open to “just about anything” that helps preserve age and demographic diversity.
Engagement and communication are the “bedrock” for developing solutions, said task force member Brad Schiff. The group needs to do extensive outreach that “not only provides us with data, but creates awareness,” he said. “Better ideas will come from that than if we sat around here for five years.”
The group plans to set up a Facebook page, but there are some in town, including foreign workers, who are always underrepresented in these types of discussions, said task force member Tracy Shields. A way to reach them would be through businesses; employers, too, need to be involved, because “they feel the pain too,” she said.
“What we're talking about here would certainly help the businesses of Chatham greatly,” she said.
“Everybody should be at the table,” said Davis, “good, bad or indifferent.”
Nicastro noted that when the selectmen held a discussion recently about choosing a location for a new senior center, both seniors and young people turned out in higher numbers than usual for a board meeting. Young people were there to argue against locating the building on land at the community center. He'd like to see that demographic more involved; the average age on town committees, he pointed out, skews more toward seniors.
“There's clearly a lot of interest out there,” uncovered, at least in part, by the Nelson letter, he said, adding that he recognizes that young people, especially those with families, are busy working and taking care of kids. But “it would be nice if that level of interest and energy were to continue and help us come up with really good plans and programs.”
The Chatham 365 task force is a good place to start, Bates said. Seven of its 11 members are parents, many of whom have had their own struggles to stay in town. The fallout from the Nelson letter may inspire their peers, and others, to participate in the political process, said McClelland.
“You could come up with the perfect solution, but if people don't come out to town meeting, it doesn't matter,” she said.
The task force did not set a date for a public forum but members agreed they'd like to hold it as soon as possible. The group will meet again on Jan. 23 at the community center to discuss the forum, outreach methodology and other ways to gather input.
The backlash to Nelson's letter wasn't all positive; there were personal attacks, ridicule and even threats. Bumper stickers and even T-shirts reading “Don't Be A Beverly” were circulated. Asked for comment, Nelson wrote in an email this was very upsetting to her and her family. “The only message I have,” she wrote, “is that individuals who choose to express an opinion should not be treated the way I have been.”
A forum may be a way to find common ground.
“There's like a truth and reconciliation that's happening within the town,” said Tolley, “There's a lot of frustration and resentment really building for decades. There's almost a healing element to this.”