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Courage, community, and cash: How towns are building housing Cape Codders can afford

Jennette Barnes
Trevor Pittinger says he feels lucky to have a stable apartment owned by the town of Provincetown, so he doesn't have to worry about being kicked out to make way for high-priced condominiums.

Demand for second homes on Cape Cod, driven in part by the pandemic, is driving up real estate prices even higher than they’ve been in the past. In this conclusion to a two-part story, Jennette Barnes explores what some communities are doing — and what they could be doing — to ensure year-round residents can afford to live on Cape Cod.

Trevor Pittinger pours himself a cup of French-press coffee that’s probably bitter. We’ve been talking a while already.

“But to be honest, I need some strong coffee,” he says. Pittinger works at Provincetown Brewing Co. and is a partner in the business.

I visited him in his beautiful Provincetown apartment, up on a hill with a water view, to see what’s possible when a town creates its own “small A” affordable housing — not subsidized housing, but places that are within reach of the local workforce, and stable.

He and his partner have a two-bedroom, two-bath, filled with natural light and local art. And the town of Provincetown owns it. There’s no private landlord here to sell and turn out renters.

“I have never lived in a space as nice as I currently have, since I probably left home for college,” he said.

He said he can’t speak highly enough of the town’s decision to purchase Harbor Hill and create a space for locals to make their homes — “not just hovels that they're in for six, eight months.”

Provincetown bought this former timeshare complex in 2018, renovated, and opened it the following year as market-rate, income-qualified housing.

That means it’s not cheap, but it’s fair, and it’s available year round, said Nathan Butera, chair of the Provincetown housing trust that operates Harbor Hill.

“When the trust was created, we were seeing people leaving town — people who'd been here for a very long time — because they lost their housing and they couldn't find anything else,” he said.

Monthly rent for two-bedroom units at Harbor Hill starts at $2,000 and goes up to about $2,600, he said.

Jennette Barnes
Apartment buildings at Harbor Hill are arranged in a cluster, with stairways terraced up the hillside.

Town-owned housing is just one strategy in Provincetown. The town passed an accessory dwelling bylaw and is expanding its sewage capacity to accommodate extra bedrooms.

Select Board member Leslie Sandberg said residents are working with the board and the town manager on more proposals, including raising the height restrictions on buildings.

“And by raising that, you're able to build more,” which the town’s comprehensive plan supports, she said.

Not every community can follow the Provincetown model.

Chatham decided not to go the ownership route, said Principal Planner Aly Sabatino.

She said Chatham doesn’t have the staff to develop property, but there’s another reason, too.

“If the town does develop the properties, … you have to follow all the procurement laws, and sometimes that can make things much more expensive,” she said.

Jennette Barnes
Nathan Butera, left, chair of a housing trust established in Provincetown for year-round, market-rate housing, joins Select Board member Leslie Sandberg to talk about the town's housing issues at Relish bakery and sandwich shop, owned by Butera's husband, Frank Vasello, right.

Chatham has something housing advocates love: apartments over stores downtown. But with today’s zoning, they would be very difficult to build.

Sabatino said the town is working on new, downtown-style zoning for West Chatham, to allow mixed-use buildings.

They’re talking with the Cape Cod Commission about “form-based” zoning. That’s form as in form and function — putting form front and center.

“I think a lot of times when people are opposed to a potential development in areas, it's really because people are afraid of how it's going to look,” Sabatino said. “And so form-based code … already sets the standard of what a building will look like. So you don't have to kind of worry about, ‘Is this just going to be a box?’”

Chatham Town Meeting has approved a number of housing initiatives, including a trust to promote affordable and attainable housing, and to fund it, a transfer tax on houses sold for $2 million or more.

Both need special state legislation.

Those are just some of the ideas percolating around the Cape to address the housing crisis.

Alisa Magnotta, CEO of the Housing Assistance Corporation, spends a lot of time thinking about these issues.

“People ask me, like, ‘Well, what's it going to take to change? What do we have to do?’” she said. “There's three things that I believe — and this is oversimplified, right? — but there are three things that we need in order to change housing on the Cape and on the Islands. And the first is courage; the second is community, and the third is cash.”

She said people have to have the courage to go to public meetings and talk about the struggles they face to live on Cape Cod year round. And adding housing requires creative investment — like helping commercial building owners put on a second or third story for apartments.

“And I say community, because it really takes all of us,” she said. “It takes all of us to keep a vibrant, year-round community economy. And it takes us locking arms and being unified in our intention and our purpose to add housing.”

No single solution is going to solve all of Cape Cod’s housing woes.

But people studying this problem say communities should focus on town centers: solve wastewater problems, add density and bedrooms, allow accessory dwellings by right, and allow commercial conversion to residential.

That, they say, would be a start.

Jennette Barnes is a reporter and producer. Named a Master Reporter by the New England Society of News Editors, she brings more than 20 years of news experience to CAI.