Every day I post a photo or video from here to social media. Practically every day.
It’s often a doughnut from Chatham Bakery or a slice of pie or muffin from Chatham Village Market, set against the landscape of Lighthouse Beach or the Oyster Pond or the lifeguard stand at the end of Bank Street.
Growing up here, you get used to having friends from away whom you might see only in the summer. Maybe just for a day. Maybe every couple years. Facebook and Instagram have made it easier to make more friends from all over. Posting pictures of some baked goods on the beach does make that easier still.
Naturally, everyone reads into these photos a lot. Idyllic, gauzy ideas of a life of ease and luxury. And naturally, local realtors also appreciate what I post. Then I need to explain what sort of town I live in, to bring things back to reality.
And one of those things I say is that this is a town with a dire affordable housing problem, where the seasonal economy means even if someone manages to earn a decent living by themselves working 60-plus hours a week, together with a working partner they still can’t find a place to rent, nevermind buy. Not at any price, because there are more wealthy renters in the world looking for their week on Cape Cod than there are residents of town.
But I don’t stop there. I then add, “And this same town will spend $2.5 million dollars for an acre and a half downtown and dedicate it solely to parking. And not just public parking, but VALET parking.”
Anywhere else, this would be considered a punchline. In some quarters here, it is greeted with a sigh of sad resignation. That this is allowed to continue as if this is perfectly normal, a perfectly rational use of public resources – and I don’t mean tax money, but buildable land – is a sign we have reached Peak Affluence.
There seems to be an utter disconnect, willfully so, between the problems we face and the ability we have to address them. In any other place, an empty lot would be used for parking until a more productive use was found. Meanwhile, we have real estate developers falling all over themselves with redevelopment of the last of the market-rate affordable homes, turning them into large empty boxes of windows and wedding cake frosting trim for use six weeks out of the year.
And the powers that be have decided the best thing to do is to allow accessory apartments unmoored from any income protections.
For years, Chatham was told that having a sole source aquifer limited development because of the loading capacity of our septic systems. It meant we couldn’t get overbuilt. When the sewer expansion was proposed, we were told again and again this was to protect the water quality of our embayments and that it would not lead to more intense development because… well, because it wouldn’t.
Pardon my incredulity. As we are expanding the sewers, we are being asked to allow multifamily dwellings as a way to increase the rental housing stock. But those new apartments will fetch whatever the market will bear. And we are to trust the town to enforce residency requirements of both the owner and the tenants so they do not get sublet, Air BnB’d or otherwise maximized for profit.
It is my regular habit, when public policies don’t make sense or seem to run counter to the will of the people, to ask “Qui Bono?” Things don’t happen by accident typically in government, but they thrive on silence. Who benefits?
Right now we have double problem of an economy that does not pay enough for to allow people to have the reasonable expectations of a home and a family. Our pay is too low. Our prices are too high.
Thirty years ago, I was tasked by the selectmen to produce an inventory of all the roads, ways and other public property in Chatham. Nineteen years ago, I proposed the use of excess county property in town for use of a few house lots. Instead, we have new parking lots where people and businesses used to be and proposals for cutting down forests for a slightly larger senior center outside of town.
These aren’t helping.
If you are serious about solving the problem, do so with every effort. If you want young people to live in town, act like it. Figure out what they want and then mobilize the town resources to meet that goal. But that will mean the comfortable and powerful will have to give up something:
Control of our public priorities.
While I wait on that, I’ll be down at the lighthouse with my coffee, my dog and my doughnut.