What is the value to a community of affordable housing?
Gloucester citizens are discussing the issue now, in light of a new proposal for rental housing on Main Street. The third of three public meetings on the proposal will be held Thursday, August 27 at the Sawyer Free Library at 6 pm.
Enduring Gloucester columnist Mike Cook weighs in:
Future ads for Gloucester real estate?
Please call realtor Michael Cook for an opportunity to view these two distinctive properties, but don’t procrastinate. Gloucester is finally poised to become as desirable and exclusive a seaside community to live in as Newburyport, Portsmouth, Provincetown, and Nantucket have long been. These two properties, along with several other of my listings, offer people with vision the chance to seize a moment that, at least in real estate terms, comes along just once in a lifetime
Okay, all of the above is a tongue in cheek work of fiction and figment of my imagination but I share it because, with the once- bustling fishing industry likely changed forever, the pressure from real estate and tourism industry interests to gentrify Gloucester in an effort to replace the jobs and economic base lost to the decline of fishing with high end, upscale tourism is only going to increase.
Now, Gloucester is a geographically and architecturally blessed city, so some gentrification is unavoidable, even desirable. Likewise, Gloucester’s many natural resources, from its beaches and still deep woods, to its quarries and scenic inlets, lend themselves, rightfully so, to the tourism industry being an important element of the city’s economic foundation.
Done responsibly and reasonably, along with genuine efforts to maintain the true “working waterfront” tradition for which Gloucester is so famous, by encouraging marine research and environmental projects and firms to come to Gloucester, the city may still have an opportunity to succeed in embracing both change and its history in ways communities like Provincetown, Portsmouth, Nantucket, and Newburyport have not.
In the interest of space, I am going to simply focus on Provincetown – a community that may, on the surface, seem very different from Gloucester but, when looked at more closely, one discovers an amazing number of similarities.
First, both communities are blessed with an almost unrivaled degree of physical and natural beauty.
Gloucester’s sandy beaches and rocky shorelines, and Provincetown’s vast expanses of sand dunes and miles long beaches make both locales, in my opinion, two of the most beautiful places on the planet. The light on Cape Ann and here at “Land’s End”, for example, is like no other place on earth. It’s little wonder artists of the caliber of Edward Hopper so loved both places.
Second, both communities share a heritage of hardworking fishing families, many of Portuguese descent, who carved out lives and livings in two geographic locations many less hardy folk found too hostile to call home.
In the case of Provincetown, thanks in large part to those hard working fishing families and the town’s character and charm, “Land’s End”, through the years, attracted and supported a wide array of people – artists, writers, craftsmen, small business owners, the people who mixed the drinks, served the food, and manned the shops and galleries, gay, and straight. Many settled in to living year round by the edge of the sea. They were able to do so, when all is said and done, because of the underlying financial and communal stability the fishing industry provided.
But over the last twenty years, as the fishing industry has faced one challenge after another, things began to change – and change dramatically.
Many of those old Portuguese fishing families have left. Captains sold their boats and their homes and moved “off Cape”. People those family fishing enterprises, and the other businesses related to them, employed who stayed at “Land’s End” found temporary haven in the tourism industry.
But as more and more multi-family homes in town were sold and their once affordable, year round apartments converted into high end, seasonal, condominium, rental properties, the working people who remained have found it harder and harder to find anything that remotely resembles permanent, reasonably priced housing.
As a result, many of those long time year round residents and workers have left. Many did so with heavy hearts and great sadness, but the need for stable housing overrode their love of this once- special place.
The decline of the fishing industry fueled the growth of the tourism industry here as its replacement, but the tourism industry has not produced the kinds of jobs that pay workers enough to live in a community that has become little more than a New England version of Fire Island in New York.
Today in Provincetown, many of those American employees in the shops, galleries, restaurants, and guest houses have been replaced with Jamaican workers and eastern European college students who often pay as much as $200 a week, not for a room but for a bunk in a room they share with three other people.
Just a couple of weeks ago, a tragedy was narrowly averted in one of those workers’ boarding houses by the quick actions of the rescue squad when the furnace in this particular flop house malfunctioned, filling the house with noxious smoke. Four young Bulgarian co-eds living in a room on the third floor were so frightened that they could only be coaxed from their room by a fireman who risked his own life to lead the young women to safety.
I work with a young Russian student who told me he and five of his Russian friends pay $175 a week each to sleep on air mattresses in the basement of a house owned by a member of Provincetown’s police department. They share one bathroom and have no kitchen privileges.
A few months ago, Provincetown hired a new town manager, only to have that individual resign shortly after being hired. Why? He could find no place to call home. His salary was not enough to be able to buy a home here, and the lack of year round rental units due to the ability of owners to get $2000 a week for a four hundred square foot condo in the months of July, August, and September, left him no choice but to conclude Provincetown was not a place he could afford to call home.
Now, I am not suggesting that what has happened to Provincetown will be Gloucester’s fate, but if people don’t pay close attention to the changes coming to Gloucester in the wake of the fishing industry’s decline, there is a very real danger that something not unlike what happened here in Provincetown could unfold in Fishtown. I say that because there are more than a few who believe tourism will replace the fishing industry as the economic mainstay of the city, and the fact that living in seaside communities has become, for lack of a better word, a real status symbol in early 21st century New England.
As if to offer a bit of foreshadowing as to what Gloucester’s future might look like, last year I overheard the executive chef and general manager of the restaurant I worked at in Gloucester for two seasons discussing the staffing problems they will likely face in the near future as the cost of housing on the island goes ever higher. One possible solution they were contemplating was to encourage the owners of the property the restaurant is located on to convert at least one of the unused buildings on the property into seasonal employee dormitory housing.
What has happened to the once- vibrant community of Provincetown is truly tragic. I offer this essay to friends in Gloucester in the hope it will motivate them to do all all they can to prevent what has happened here to happen to Gloucester.
The clock is ticking and once the changes come, they will be all but impossible to undo.
Sadly, the fictional real estate listings above are not likely to be fictional for very much longer. The process of converting Fort Square into “Louisburg Square by the Sea”, and “Portagee” Hill into “Beacon Hill by the Bay”, is probably further along than many people realize.