A mix of extreme conditions has made the real estate market in the remote town of Cape Cod one of the most harrowing in New England.
WHY WE ARE HERE
We’re exploring how America defines itself one place at a time. In this coastal New England town, a booming summer economy has local renters fearing overpriced.
Reporting from Provincetown, Mass.
As soon as Dan McKeon saw a Facebook post from a young woman looking for summer lodging for her boyfriend, he knew what was going to happen.
Mr. McKeon is an unofficial « housing matchmaker » in Provincetown on the Cape Cod tip, where a mix of extreme conditions – limited supplies, huge summer demand, heavy dependence on an influx of seasonal workers – creates one of the most excruciating real estate markets in New England.
In his highly consulted Facebook group, people looking for accommodation post smiling selfies and plaintive pleas for help; much less frequently, Mr. McKeon and others share available rents. Both online and as a fixture on the local social circuit, Mr. McKeon urges city homeowners to open up unused rooms to desperate newcomers, shares insider-searching tips, and is committed to ensuring that every person in looking for rent, all year round or not, feel welcome.
But on this April day, the woman’s post, looking for a $700-a-month room, had sparked a mocking reaction among some of the 2,400 members of the group, just as Mr. McKeon had predicted. « Clearly no one told you it’s impossible, » reads one response, « but $700 a month is late ’90s rent. »
In a real estate market as shocking as that in Provincetown – where the median sale price of a single-family home last month was $1.9 million, the number of Airbnbs has increased and vacant apartments are virtually non-existent – the edgy comment reflects the frustration of renters locals living in constant fear of being taken for granted.
« No one is immune, » said Mr. McKeon, 68, who fell in love with Provincetown on a family day trip when he was 15 and retired there in 2009. « It doesn’t matter if you have money, if you have been here a long time – if you rent, you are liable to go through this.
A renter himself, he knows firsthand the cycle of upheaval. Forced to move three times so far, he fears a fourth move, from a home he loves, next year, when his landlord intends to reclaim it as his full-time home.
Mr. McKeon, who volunteers as an unpaid housing guru and also works as a photographer in the city, said he’s moved to help others because he knows what it’s like to dream of living in Provincetown. He’s also driven to preserve civilization, even in the online trenches, lest the welcoming vibes that define his adopted hometown crumble into the chaos of housing Armageddon. After her dismissive reaction to her request for a $700 room, he texted the woman to offer his support of her and sternly reminded the group to be nice.
« This is not Oprah, or Dr. Phil, » she said in an interview. « This is my home page. »
Long a destination for artists, gay and lesbian vacationers, and free spirits drawn from farther afield, the city is remote and compact, 116 miles from Boston by car and halfway by ferry. Its gray shingle homes and white picket fences are surrounded on three sides by water and miles of steep, sprawling sand dunes, part of the Cape Cod National Seashore.
Windswept and quiet in the winter, when only 3,600 year-round residents remain, the city is 60,000 in the height of summer, its beaches, bars and brick sidewalks buzzing with a lively mix of summer affluent, LGBTQ travellers, year – rounders and international students who arrive every spring on short-term J1 visas to work in hotels, galleries and restaurants.
There is no place like it, its siren song is irresistible to many who hear it. Yet Provincetown has become as unattainable as it is attractive, its rental homes almost mythically elusive.
The pleas on Mr. McKeon’s Facebook page chart an emotional collision of dreams and deflated reality. In the hectic run-up to the tourist season that kicks off on Memorial Day weekend, two Bulgarian students who « love cleanliness and hate clutter » and a mother in Utah have come to see a doctor who has moved to the city for a new job. looking for a safe place to raise her transgender daughter.
Longtime residents are not exempt. Francine Kraniotakis, who runs the family business downtown, George’s Pizza, posted her plea in the Facebook group in April. In March, she said, her landlord gave her until June to vacate the apartment she has been renting for nine years, near the restaurant and her elderly parents who live above it.
« My stress level is like a 20, » she said in early May on the breezy patio behind the pizzeria, where her father, George Kraniotakis, an immigrant from Greece, tends a trellised canopy of vines each summer. .
She’d asked her landlord for more time, offered to pay more rent, and tracked down a dozen housing contacts, but she hadn’t found an affordable place she liked that was close enough to the work, where she’s needed at all hours to solve the problems of frequent staff shortages.
Painfully aware of their plight of housing — and the pressing questions it raises about Provincetown’s future — local leaders have stepped up their efforts to deal with it. The city is building 65 year-round rental units on the former site of a VFW hall, its housing director, Michelle Jarusiewicz, said, while a private developer plans to create 100 dormitory-style housing units for seasonal workers, who are desperately needed by employers.
As they struggle to find workers, some companies have been forced to cut hours. Others offer on-site lodging for free or for minimal rent, or rent out employee rooms in area motels, not all of which are in good condition, locals said. The Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce recently hired a housing coordinator to help foreign student workers find host families or other accommodation for the season.
Kristin Hatch, executive director of the Provincetown Housing Authority, said she regularly receives calls for housing emergencies, including people living in cars or in the woods. Many are former housekeepers, waiters and other service workers.
« We’re going to hit a wall, » he said. « Who’s going to save these people in a small town like this? »
Mr. McKeon, who spent decades working in patient care at a New York mental hospital, isn’t the only matchmaker in town. There’s also another Facebook page dedicated to housing and other scouts, such as Arlene Weston, a local housing commissioner who helped place student workers in an empty church parsonage last summer.
Adding to their challenge, McKeon said, are the fake rental listings, posted by scammers, that need to be eradicated. In retaliation for exposing them, he said, the scammers harassed him on his social media and cell phone accounts, calls answered with a cheerful « Provincetown Police Department! »
He said he found rooms to rent for just a dozen people this spring, in the toughest market he’s ever seen.
Nigel Revenge, a local actor, was among those excluded, after his landlord of three years decided to convert his flat to a weekly rental. Months of searching got him nowhere, and Mr. Revenge left Provincetown at the end of April to stay with his family elsewhere on Cape Cod.
Within days, he said, a driver called it an anti-gay slur as he cycled to work. « I’m not in Oz anymore, » said Mr. Revenge.
Henry Merges, 20, a Brown University sophomore, was so eager to accept a summer internship at the Provincetown Art Association that he briefly considered living in a borrowed RV. Ultimately though, he turned down the opportunity due to lack of housing, moved with his parents to upstate New York, and resumed his job search.
« It was pretty heartbreaking, » she said, « but it felt like a battle not worth fighting. »
As summer approached and the rental frenzy escalated, outrage erupted again on Facebook, this time in response to a post about « two freestanding cottages, » 800 and 850 square feet.
“SUMMER SEASONAL RENTAL!” start.
The cost for four months: $34,000 per unit.