Affordable housing is not just about housing.
A second-home owner in Wellfleet’s neighborhood proposed, ambitious 46-unit affordable housing project asks: what’s the deal about affordable housing? Why are residents, including abutters, so enthusiastic about this project? Don’t housing projects always erode the quality of a neighborhood and lower property values?
How to explain the almost unanimous support for affordable housing over the past couple of decades?
For one thing, it’s not sheer altruism: it just doesn’t feel right to live in an aging town where young people, young families, can’t afford to rent or buy.
Then there’s the practical side, often cited: a town is in trouble if those needed to run it – the tradespeople, teachers, town hall workers, cops, firefighters, etc. – can’t afford to live here (or anywhere near).
But there’s something else behind the push for affordable housing. It is a struggle to preserve a way of life.
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In the 1960s, ’70s and’ 80s Wellfleet’s population, which had been stable for decades at
about 1,000, took its first jump since the 19th century. A lot of those who made up that wash-ashore invasion (as it might have seemed to the largely native population being joined on this narrow land), were young or youngish people who, having arrived on a family vacation or other short stay, decided to make the Outer Cape home.
They came not to retire, but to spend their lives here for obvious reasons: natural beauty and a sort of off-the-grid freedom. Part and parcel of that freedom was affordability. Living here, including the cost of housing, was, if anything, more affordable than the cities or suburbs they left behind.
Loosely characterized as members of the “counter-culture,” part of the “back to nature” flight from the cities, they brought with them the values and lifestyle of that generation.
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That lifestyle prioritized a less structured life than a standard career in cities and suburbs. It valued a creative life (including, but not limited to, the arts) over money. Those with college degrees could clearly have put them to more monetarily advantageous uses than were available in this outpost.
Politically, they leaned left. Sometime between 1960 and 1980, the Outer Cape went from solidly Republican to solidly Democratic.
They transcended the typical distinctions between white and blue collars that would have characterized their own hometowns. Many became tradesmen, builders and workers on houses, and fishers. Some built or helped build their own houses. At parties were to be found all walks of town life.
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It is this demographic or generation that has shaped a lot of the character (vibe, je ne sais quoi) of the town we value today.
Local actors created Wellfleet Harbor Actors’ Theater, whose influence went well beyond that of traditional community theater, and its offspring, Harbor Stage.
This wash-ashore generation created radio station WOMR, which is still run by gracefully aging hippies and fellow travelers.
They brainstormed the abandoned Catholic Church into Preservation Hall, the architectural and institutional embodiment of those values.
Prejudice in favor of modesty in houses versus McMansions and trophy houses resulted in a bylaw limiting house size.
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Anti-corporate in their politics, this cohort opposed, sometimes in vain, cookie-cutter mega-corporations as inimical (both economically and aesthetically) to the values of uniqueness and localness. In the late 1990s, they fought the good (if quixotic) fight against cellphones and their towers.
In Payomet, they gave the Outer Cape our own version of the Melody Tent.
They came up with that immensely popular all-town party of Oyster Fest.
And members of the wash-ashore invasion have been leaders in the push for affordable housing.
In their 60s, 70s and even older, this cohort is a dominant life form in this town still, but they are an endangered species. Aging in place, but aging, selling off businesses they can no longer run, many will not be replaced by their offspring because this is no longer the easy-living place of their youth. (The elementary school population has dropped in the past 25 years from the mid-200s to less than 100.)
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Affordable housing is popular among most of this generation because while it doesn’t guarantee the survival of their way of life – it can in fact at times feel like a drop in the bucket – it’s an expression of that way of life. It feels like a blow struck against the second-home market which has so dominated and skewed the life of this region.
We don’t know of course exactly the values or politics of those who avail themselves of affordable housing. But affordable housing seems like a pre-requisite to the possibility of something other than the combination of vacation destination and retirement community we are turning into.
Brent Harold, a Cape Cod Times columnist and former English professor, lives in Wellfleet. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.