Housing dilemma in resort towns
SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF COIN SPINNING)
DARIAN WOODS, HOST:
Robert Smith, you're carrying an NPR tote bag.
ROBERT SMITH, HOST:
I am. Summer is just around the corner, and so I need to make sure I have all of my beach gear together in one place. So I have my sunscreen here.
SMITH: Oh, don't want to get that all over myself. I got a portable radio so I can rock out.
WOODS: OK. Your local public radio station, I hope.
SMITH: And a little light beach reading. This one's called "The Summary Of Commentary On Current Economic Conditions."
WOODS: Better known as the Beige Book, this obscure government publication that we are obsessed with here at THE INDICATOR. But I would argue that it's not a beach read.
SMITH: Yeah, it's a little light on plot, I will admit. But there are some great lines in there, little anecdotes about how the economy is doing. The only problem with the Beige Book is that when I put it down in the sand, it's really hard to find again because it's beige.
WOODS: It blends right in.
SMITH: You know what doesn't blend in, Darian? It's the Beigie Awards, our eight-times-a-year salute to the art and science of telling stories about the economy. I'm Robert Smith.
WOODS: And I'm Darian Woods. Not to spoil your summer read, but today we're going to reveal all the twists and surprises in the most recent Beige Book. And we're going to give out awards. The TV writers are also on strike, by the way, so this might be the only good award show that you're going to get this season.
SMITH: All that after the break.
It's always good to remind everyone how this works. There are 12 regional banks in the Federal Reserve System. Each one carefully studies their local economy and brings back little stories of what they see, puts them in the Beige Book and we tell you the best ones.
WOODS: And let's start right in. The first runner-up goes to the Minneapolis Fed.
SMITH: Multiple award winner. They've been on a roll recently. This time, they get the silver for introducing a word that I have never heard before in an economic story.
(Reading) Layoffs appeared to increase, but mass layoff events were still low. A Minnesota staffing firm said that businesses were, quote, "exfoliating the workers they don't need." I'm going to read that one more time - exfoliating the workers they don't need.
WOODS: That is quite the euphemism. I mean, I'm guessing exfoliating workers means laying off only a few people at a time. But you hate to hear companies compare workers to dead skin cells.
SMITH: Yeah, I miss the days when they used to use terms like rightsizing. What was wrong with rightsizing?
WOODS: It's funny, the corporate speak that we miss when it's gone. But let's move on to the winner. The envelope, please. And the Beigie goes to the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.
SMITH: Boston. The Beigie will be accepted by Mary A. Burke, senior economist and policy adviser at the Boston Fed.
MARY A BURKE: Hi. Hi, Robert.
SMITH: Hey. Congratulations.
BURKE: Thank you.
SMITH: The winning entry this time is about Cape Cod. And I have noticed that you do tend to write more about the Cape every spring. Does this mean that economists are dreaming of vacation there?
BURKE: Oh, you found us out. The Cape is actually really important to the summer economy in the New England region.
SMITH: And for anyone who has not visited Cape Cod, people should know it's this narrow spit of sand that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean, and it's filled with ice cream parlors and mini golf courses.
BURKE: Oh, no. I wouldn't necessarily say narrow. It's quite wide in parts. Spit of sand - I think that's a bit reductive. It's full of ponds and diverse towns. I could go on and on. I'm a huge fan of the Cape. No offense taken, but I would just revise that a bit.
WOODS: Robert Smith, your name is now mud on the Cape.
SMITH: I know. I know. How am I going to get my fried clams? Anyway, I am - I'm sorry to the people of Cape Cod. Let me stop winging it and just read Boston's winning entry in the Beige Book.
(Reading) Cape Cod hospitality contacts ramped up efforts to recruit international workers to address labor shortages in advance of the busy summer season. And Massachusetts has funded an effort to place visa holders in temporary housing to facilitate such hiring.
WOODS: Cape Cod has, for decades, relied on seasonal workers coming from all around the world to serve those fried clams and clean the hotel rooms.
SMITH: And during the pandemic, the number of international workers dropped. We knew this. But when tourism roared back in 2022, a lot of places were left short-staffed.
BURKE: Last summer, it really did cause a lot of hardship. You mentioned that the tourism was booming, but there were also long lines for the ice cream, long lines for restaurants. Restaurants were closed for certain meals. They had to have reduced hours. And that's just purely forgone revenues. And so there was really just way, you know, less economic activity than - you know, than there was demand for, and that's just a very sad situation.
WOODS: There are two big problems on the Cape. First - visas. Employers are not getting enough visas for the international workers. The second is real estate. When the workers arrive, there is not enough places for them to live. And that's an issue we're seeing in resort towns across the country.
SMITH: We wanted to hear more about the particular problems of Cape Cod, so we called up Mac Hay. He's the owner of Mac's Seafood and the Chatham Fish & Lobster company, which makes me hungry just saying those words.
MAC HAY: If you're going to go for one item, I'd say you have to try the lobster roll - fresh hand-picked lobster meat tossed with a touch of mayo, little bit of lemon juice, celery.
SMITH: Oh, so good.
WOODS: Could be enough to make me start eating meat again, I got to say.
SMITH: They have French fries there, too, Darian.
WOODS: OK, OK. Mac says in a place like Cape Cod, you're stuck. It's too far away to commute to from Boston, and there aren't enough locals to do the jobs.
SMITH: Once upon a time, you could have gotten students to do it. But now a lot of students need to head back to college in mid-August, so they can't work until Labor Day. The solution Mac uses is international workers on H-2B visas.
HAY: What we're looking for is an H-2B worker that wants to return to us year after year. And we've already trained them, and they know the program. They know the situation. They know the living arrangements and all the things that people have to adjust to when they have to relocate their lives for six months of the year.
SMITH: Yeah, but you can't invite someone from the Philippines or Mexico and not provide them with a place to sleep, and that has been brutal to find recently. This is another problem we're seeing in resort towns across the nation. The housing market is still tight since the pandemic. The rise in Airbnbs is taking long-term rentals off the market, and there just isn't much left over for workers at Mac's Seafood.
WOODS: And so Mac says he has a team of people who frantically search for any available rooms. Mac's company even bought a motel so that he could put some of his staff up there.
SMITH: He bought a full motel.
HAY: There's 30 rooms there. Ten of those rooms we use for our staff. We've also been lucky enough to buy real estate over the years where we house about 110 to 120 employees a year through our own programs. And then we try to work with local landlords and find people rooms and that type of thing.
SMITH: This is wild. You're an expert in oysters and lobsters, and you're spending all this time, you know, thinking about construction and housing and, I don't know, maybe eventually even bussing them in from far away.
HAY: I mean, when you have the average price in Provincetown over a million dollars for a home, it's just flabbergasting. So I don't know. I sometimes think that it will work itself out, but it's not going to. It's only going to get worse moving forward.
WOODS: As the Beige Book noted, the state of Massachusetts is trying to do something about the problem. Mary Burke from the Boston Fed says that the state has funded a new position to help employers on the Cape find host families for workers. So we'll see if that makes anything better.
SMITH: Mary, congratulations on winning the Beigie Award this time and bringing this whole situation to our attention.
BURKE: Thank you. And I want to acknowledge my colleague Riley Sullivan, a senior policy analyst who contributed this anecdote this time.
SMITH: Well, may you all take a well-deserved vacation, I don't know, maybe out on Cape Cod this summer.
BURKE: Thanks so much. Will do.
SMITH: And if any of you have extra room in your beach house, may I suggest the following names? This episode was produced by Brittany Cronin with engineering from James Willetts. It was fact-checked by Sierra Juarez. Viet Le is our senior producer. Kate Concannon edits the show. THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR, which makes a lovely tote bag.
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