Toward a Creative Economy

“We do not have a housing problem.  We have an income problem.”

I was glad to hear this coming from Chatham Selectman Sean Summers recently.

In 2001, the first meeting I attended as a newly-minted selectman, outside my own board, was for the affordable housing committee.  I had always been proud of Chatham’s support for efforts to retain its working families.  It stood in such stark contrast to the out-of-town stereotyping that CHATHAM = RICH = CONSERVATIVE = HEARTLESS SNOBS.

However, over the years I’ve seen plenty of the housing for working people in town get redeveloped into high-end second homes, little by little, with little if any regard as to the cumulative effect on the community.  “What difference is just this going to make?” goes the argument.  This is how a town dies.

Meanwhile, as housing costs doubled, tripled, I saw wages stagnate and even fall.  More and more of the town was being covered in living space, and less and less of it was intended for or within reach of the people who lived and worked here.

I write this in the aftermath of our last town meeting.  But I raise this not to talk about the failure of affordable housing amendments to pass.  Rather, there’s a more important impact on Chatham’s housing that did pass – sewers.

Just as town water coming to a neighborhood allowed houses to be built on lots without regard to the proximity of a septic system to a well, by addressing our wastewater needs, we face some very serious side effects. With sewers, homes can now be built without worrying about the impact of their septic systems on the environment.

Yes, in years past we’ve seen a bylaw amendment enacted that would prohibit greater building on a lot that is newly sewered than was allowed prior to its sewering. But then, we’ve recently seen that Dunkin Donuts is not fast food, and an attempt to push poor families into our industrial zone (established because such uses were incompatible with residential areas).  There is a very human urge to fully exploit a public convenience when given the opportunity to make a private profit.

Hence, density will increase.  It is necessary to plan for the impacts, yet we seem stymied by a system that the public perceives as too closely affected by large property owners in town, and driven pell-mell towards a goal of 10 percent affordable housing so as to fit into a one-size-fits-all mandate by the state. In other words, not just doing the right thing for the wrong reason, but looking as if it was being done it for all the worst reasons.

There are many good reasons to assure that working people can live here.  Continuity.  Stability.  Fairness.  Hope.

But sadly we’ve continued to address just one side of the equation: lowering housing costs to match what our current local economy pays.  There seems to be no effort whatsoever to improve and diversify the economy.   Any talk of it seems to have the greatest thinking of the mid-20th century behind it, “General Motors is not going to build a factory here.”  That’s no news flash.  As if heavy industry is the only solution to improving a local economy.

Our national economy is changing.  We need to adapt.  We’ve heard time and time again that young people – whose education we’ve spent good money on — are leaving the Cape because they want more than waiting tables, swinging a hammer or making beds.  There are plenty of expensive, gorgeous places in this country where smart people move to start businesses because they are encouraged by these communities.

Meanwhile, there just seems something very wrong that two of the largest employers in town are Chatham Bars Inn and town government.

If asked, most people here would agree that any healthy town needs more balance in its economy and its people.  Educationally, we’re not a backward town by any measure, but there seems to be mulish unwillingness to look any further than addressing state mandates with short-term fixes.

We should not be looking to solve the problems others say we have.  We should be planning for what is inevitable (a rapid growth in density), and for what we all agree is a public priority (a way people can afford to live here).  If we start a public dialogue now, we might just be able to come up with some creative solutions, perhaps many small ideas, that can put us back in charge of our future.

Read this and Andy's other columns online at The Cape Cod Chronicle.

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