Andrew Buckley: The Hard Season

Out on Sears Point yesterday I could hear the instructors of the Stage Harbor Yacht club announcing directions to the fleet of white Optis sailed by their students. A center console skiff cruised slowly out of the Oyster River as a breeze pulled in from the southwest, across Harding's Beach from Nantucket Sound, pushing out the last of the fog from earlier in the day. Out of the near-milky sky, as if on cue, a seagull hovered over the beach and dropped a quahog to break it on whatever hard surface was obscured to me over the beach plums and rosa rugosa.

This was about as perfect a summer Cape Cod scene as any chamber of commerce pamphleteer could imagine.

On my mind was the spot on Main Street in downtown Chatham being used by those who can’t find a place to sleep indoors.

While people couch-surfing is a common practice when winter rentals are emptied of year-round residents over the past few decades, some forced into campgrounds or sleeping in their cars, this—sleeping in spaces tucked between buildings and using public restrooms and beach showers as bathrooms—feels like a step into a new reality.

It feels like we’ve given up.

As a selectman, I recall going to a meeting of the affordable housing committee. This was an issue that was important to me when I had run for the office. But the resignation that I heard from then-chair of that committee Florence Seldin was dispiriting. Making the state-mandated goal of 10 percent affordable housing was unrealistic, she said. There was no way it would ever be achieved. We were at 4 percent then. The consequence of not acting was to face endless Chapter 40B developments that would cast our zoning to the wind and allow higher density in any part of town, with only septic considerations holding things at bay.

I felt it was important to have a goal, albeit ambitious, because it showed the priority in spite of the challenge. But it was too hard.

Chatham seems to be specializing over the past two decades in avoiding hard choices.

What we have done is create a town-wide plan that will indeed free us from septic tanks. The promise at the time from planning officials, as described to me by Chronicle Editor Tim Wood, was that connecting the town to sewer would not mean any increase in density.

That promise is 10 years old and many of those promisers have moved on. If anything allows greater density on a lot, it will be found because there is financial incentive to do so. People die and houses get turned over and town officials leave and greed fills the gaps in these opportunities faster than integrity and wisdom.

At our last town meeting, passage of the accessory dwelling unit bylaw was a nice way to feel like progress was being made on housing. But it was more like a Newt Gingrich-Jack Kemp free market approach—increase the supply of apartments to meet demand, with an inspection regime to make sure this doesn’t become a backdoor way to put two seasonal units on every lot instead of one.

Oh, and amnesty for existing units. If there was any leverage a tenant ever had for negotiating rent, it was knowing that their place was not legal. We just ripped that cap off.

Now the finance committee is giving up on the 10 percent cap because it is impossible. Last month the median sale price of a home soared over $800,000. This is not the time to walk away from a commitment to a measly 1/10th of the housing stock being affordable. We are a rich town. We are built out, and real estate developers are pressing for more ways to make money—the only way being greater density.

Yet none of that density is creating greater affordability. Rather, we are going backwards. We are, with a collection of nice-sounding policies, giving up. Moreover, if we create more non-affordable units, then we increase our housing stock and, as a result, lower our affordable housing percentage. That is regression. 

Real solutions are hard. They will afflict the comfortable in ways that decrease the rapidity of their affluence. In Chatham, that is considered hardship.

Except for the people under blankets and in sleeping bags in corners and under stairs within feet of your latte and designer bag. That is the reality and our growing future.