ACROSS THE COUNTRY
In Provincetown, Mass., a Matchmaker Helps the Desperate Find Housing
A mix of extreme conditions has made the remote Cape Cod town’s housing market one of the most harrowing in New England.
WHY WE’RE HERE
As soon as he saw the post on Facebook, from a young woman seeking summer housing for her boyfriend, Dan McKeon knew what was going to happen.
Mr. McKeon is an unofficial “housing matchmaker” in Provincetown, at the far edge of Cape Cod, where a mix of extreme conditions — limited stock, enormous summertime demand, heavy reliance on an influx of seasonal workers — creates one of the most harrowing housing markets in New England.
In his much-consulted Facebook group, people seeking housing post smiling selfies and plaintive appeals for help; far less frequently, Mr. McKeon and others share available rentals. Both online and as a fixture on the local social circuit, Mr. McKeon urges the town’s homeowners to open unused rooms to desperate newcomers, shares insider search tips and strives to ensure that every rental-seeker, year-round or not, feels welcome.
On this April day, however, the woman’s post, in search of a room for $700 per month, had unleashed a mocking backlash among some of the group’s 2,400 members, just as Mr. McKeon had anticipated. “Quite clearly no one has told you it’s impossible,” read one response, “but $700/month is a late 1990s rent.”
In a housing market as unhinged as Provincetown’s — where the median sales price of a single-family home was $1.9 million last month, the number of Airbnbs has surged and apartment vacancies are essentially nonexistent — the sharp-edged commentary reflects the frustration of local renters who live in constant fear of being priced out.
“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’ve been here a long time — if you rent, you are subject to go through this.”
A renter himself, he knows the cycle of upheaval firsthand. Forced to move three times so far, he is dreading a fourth relocation, from a house he loves, next year, when his landlord plans to reclaim it as her full-time home.
Mr. McKeon, who volunteers his time as an unpaid housing guru, and also works as a photographer in town, said he was driven to help others because he knows what it is to dream of living in Provincetown. He is also driven to preserve civility — even in the online trenches — lest the welcoming vibes that define his adopted hometown crumble in the chaos of a housing Armageddon. After the scornful reaction to the $700 room request, he messaged the woman to offer his support and sternly reminded the group to be kind.
“This is not Oprah, or Dr. Phil,” he said in an interview. “This is my housing page.”
Long a destination for artists, gay and lesbian vacationers, and free spirits drawn to the outermost reaches, the town is remote and compact, 116 miles from Boston by car and half as far by ferry. Its gray-shingled houses and white picket fences sit surrounded on three sides by water and miles of steep and sprawling sand dunes, part of the Cape Cod National Seashore.
Windswept and quiet in the winter, when just 3,600 year-round residents remain, the town packs in 60,000 people at the height of summer, its beaches, bars and brick sidewalks teeming with a vibrant mix of wealthy summer people, L.G.B.T.Q. travelers, year-rounders and international students who arrive each spring with short-term J1 visas to work in hotels, galleries and restaurants.
There is no place like it, its siren song irresistible to many who hear it. Yet Provincetown has become as unattainable as it is appealing, its rental housing almost mythically elusive.
The pleas on Mr. McKeon’s Facebook page chart an emotional collision of dreams and deflating realities. In the frantic run-up to the tourist season that kicks off on Memorial Day weekend, they came from a doctor moving to town for a new job, two Bulgarian students who “love cleanliness and hate mess” and a mother in Utah seeking a safe place to raise her transgender daughter.
Longtime residents are not exempt. Francine Kraniotakis, who manages her family’s downtown business, George’s Pizza, posted her own entreaty in the Facebook group in April. In March, she said, her landlord gave her until June to vacate the apartment she has rented for nine years, close to the restaurant and to her aging parents who live above it.
“My stress level is like a 20,” she said in early May on the breezy patio behind the pizza place, where her father, George Kraniotakis, an immigrant from Greece, tends a canopy of trellised grapevines every summer.
She had asked her landlord for more time, offered to pay more rent and tracked down a dozen housing leads, but she had not found an affordable place she liked that was close enough to work, where she is needed at all hours to troubleshoot frequent staffing shortages.
Painfully aware of their housing predicament — and the pressing questions it raises about Provincetown’s future — local leaders have stepped up their efforts to address it. The town 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 has plans to create 100 units of dorm-style accommodations for seasonal workers, who are desperately needed by employers.
As they strain to find workers, some businesses have been forced to cut back hours. Others offer on-site housing for free or minimal rent, or rent rooms for employees in area motels — not all of them in good condition, locals said. The Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce recently hired a housing coordinator to help student workers from overseas find host families or other accommodations for the season.
Kristin Hatch, executive director of the Provincetown Housing Authority, said she regularly receives calls about housing emergencies, including people living in cars or in the woods. Many are former housekeepers, wait staff and other service workers.
“We’re hitting a wall,” she 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 psychiatric hospital, is not the only matchmaker in town. There is another Facebook page also devoted to housing, and other scouts, like Arlene Weston, a local housing commissioner who helped place student workers in a vacant church rectory last summer.
Adding to their challenge, Mr. McKeon said, are the fake rental listings, posted by scammers, that must be rooted out. In retaliation for exposing them, he said, fraudsters have harassed him on his social media accounts and cellphone, calls he answers with a cheerful, “Provincetown Police Department!”
He said he has found room rentals for only about a dozen people this spring, in the toughest market he has ever seen.
Nigel Revenge, a local actor, was among those squeezed out, after his landlord of three years decided to convert his apartment into a weekly rental. Months of searching got him nowhere, and Mr. Revenge left Provincetown at the end of April to stay with family elsewhere on Cape Cod.
Within days, he said, a driver called him an anti-gay slur as he rode his bicycle to work. “I’m not in Oz anymore,” Mr. Revenge said.
Henry Merges, 20, a Brown University sophomore, was so eager to accept a summer internship at the Provincetown Art Association, he briefly considered living in a borrowed camper. Ultimately, though, he turned down the opportunity for lack of housing, moved in with his parents in upstate New York and resumed his job search.
“It was pretty heartbreaking,” he said, “but it felt like a battle not worth fighting.”
As summer neared and the rental frenzy escalated, outrage bubbled up again on Facebook, this time in response to a post about “two freestanding cottages,” 800 and 850 square feet.
“SUMMER SEASONAL RENTAL!” it began.
The cost for four months: $34,000 per unit.
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