Yes to the Housing Bank

Spring is town meeting season in New England, and that includes Martha’s Vineyard. Four of the six island towns — Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, Tisbury, and my town of West Tisbury — hold their annual town meetings (ATMs) next Tuesday, April 9. Chilmark’s is on April 22, and Aquinnah’s is, as usual, the last of the lot, on May 14.

ATMs are always important, but this year’s are more important than most. Two articles on each town’s warrant concern the creation and funding of a housing bank.

The island’s year-round housing situation is dire. For the last two years or so it’s been virtually impossible to find an affordable year-round rental. (For the last 12 years I’ve lived in a studio apartment that’s included on my town’s affordable housing roster. If I lose it for any reason, it’s likely that my only option will be to leave the island.) Some 900 working Vineyarders and their families are on the wait list for affordable housing. The median home price is $670,00, which puts homeownership out of reach of most Vineyard workers.

Younger Vineyarders, especially those with families, are leaving, and every year more jobs are filled by workers commuting from off-island. Why is this a problem, some people ask, as long as the jobs get done? The answer is that at the end of the day commuting workers take both their dollars and their volunteer hours off-island, where they support and sustain their home communities, not ours. The community we so value is sustained day in, day out, by year-round residents of all ages and from all walks of life who invest our time, energy, and money in making this a good place to live.

Multiple public and private organizations — including the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority, the Island Housing Trust, Habitat for Humanity, the affordable housing committees in each of the island towns — have been working tirelessly for years — decades! — to ameliorate the problem. The problem is still getting worse.

The two articles on the ATM warrant would establish a regional housing bank dedicated to creating year-round housing, funded with revenue from the local excise rooms tax, which the commonwealth has recently expanded to include short-term rentals as well as hotels, motels, and B&Bs.

It should be a no-brainer, but it’s not. Some town officials have dug their heels in against it. Online discussion about it has been, all too predictably, riddled with misinformation. So here’s my attempt to demystify the housing bank warrant articles creating and providing a funding mechanism for an island-wide housing bank, and to persuade you to vote for them.

The first and most important point is that these articles are only the first step but they are the essential first step.

If we don’t take this first step, the housing bank is dead for the foreseeable future and along with it any realistic hope of coming to grips with our ever-worsening year-round housing crisis.

The idea of a housing bank has received widespread approval on the Vineyard, most recently in the nonbinding resolutions passed by most ATMs in 2017. Each town’s Housing Production Plan includes as an option an island-wide housing bank funded by a tax on short-term rentals.

What we are doing at town meeting is sending a strong message to the state legislature that we want to establish a regional housing bank to support year-round housing, using a percentage of funds from the recently expanded rooms tax. It will take up to two years for the legislature to pass the enabling legislation. During that time we’ll be working out the details of how the housing bank will be run. Once the enabling legislation is passed, the proposal will come back to be voted on at town meeting and at the ballot box.

So what will the Housing Bank look like?

  • The Housing Bank will combine regional focus with local control. Each town will elect one member to the Housing Bank Commission, and the seventh will be appointed by the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority.
  • The Housing Bank Commission’s decisions on any given project will be made jointly with the town in which the project is planned.
  • Both non-profit and for-profit developers can apply for Housing Bank funds. These might include individual towns, the DCRHA, Island Elderly Housing, the Island Housing Trust, private developers, and so on.
  • Housing Bank funds can only be used for year-round housing and the infrastructure to support it. This might include the purchase and remodeling of existing homes as well as new construction. It can benefit Vineyarders whose incomes don’t qualify for existing programs but who can’t afford market-rate housing either.

And how will it be funded?

  • The warrant article requests that each town allocate 50% of the revenue raised by the newly expanded local excise rooms tax to the Housing Bank.
  • The excise tax is paid by visitors who stay in island hotels, motels, B&Bs, and (now) short-term rentals.
  • Since the expansion of the rooms tax is new, we don’t know how much revenue will be generated, but estimates suggest that if all six towns allocate 50% to the Housing Bank it could be more than $4 million a year.
  • The Housing Bank can also raise funds through grants, town funds, and borrowing or bonding.

Yes, it’s complicated. Yes, some details remain to be worked out. So I come back to my #1 point:

The Housing Bank articles on the ATM warrant are the essential first step.

If we don’t take this first step, the housing bank is dead for the foreseeable future and along with it any hope of coming to grips with our ever-worsening year-round housing crisis.

Current efforts aren’t meeting the ever-increasing need. No other plausible funding mechanisms have come close to even reaching the drawing-board stage. Now is the time. Please vote YES on the articles creating and funding the Housing Bank.

Town Meeting schedule:

Tuesday, April 9, 7 p.m.
Old Whaling Church
Oak Bluffs: MVRHS Performing Arts Center
Tisbury: Tisbury School
West Tisbury: West Tisbury School

Monday, April 22, 7:30 p.m.
Chilmark Community Center

Tuesday, May 14, 7 p.m.
Aquinnah town hall

About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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2 Responses to Yes to the Housing Bank

  1. Juleann says:

    I absolutely support the idea of a Housing Bank, but probably not one built on the shifting sand of this particular legislation. It astonishes me that Senator Cyr and Congressman Fernandes supported something that just cannot be implemented in the near future. I don’t understand why no one is identifying the basic flaws that are seriously problematic.

    EVERY short-term rental MUST be inspected for health & safety compliance before being rented THIS season. Our towns are prepared to accomplish that this spring? That will be thousands of inspections. While this is a laudable and long over-due goal, we probably needed a full year to get the task properly tended to since many of these properties haven’t been inspected for fifty years or so.

    Every short-term rental must be insured for $1 million dollars — indemnifying EACH tenant, not the landlord. That insurance policy is not currently possible to obtain on the Cape & Islands.

    Finally, all sales taxes are inheritantly regressive and this essentially imposes a 12% sales tax on all short-term rentals, while creating a serious commitment of time and bookkeeping on homeowners, many of whom are just trying to make enough to pay taxes and keep a home that has been in their family for generations.

    My biggest beef from the housing bank folks is their position that we should vote in favor because “they” (the tourists) will be paying so “we” (year-round islanders) don’t have to. It just feels unwelcoming.

    Yes, there was a need to level the playing field between all the lodging operators. Yes, we need a housing bank. No, to this particular approach. When realtors chose to support THIS tax, but actively lobbied against expanding the land bank fee for the purpose of housing we should all take pause. They knew who would be affected and they preferred that the people who cannot afford to BUY a house on MV be the ones who are taxed.


  2. Karen says:

    We discovered the Vineyard 30 years ago and ever since, have pondered owning a small home on island where we could spend the warmer months in retirement “some day”. As you well know, the cost of housing has gone up so significantly on island that we have lost our window of affordable buying ability. It’s common sense to know that issue must really be huge for the local population trying to live there year round. I have often wondered where the “affordable housing” is for residents and seasonal workers. What are young folks who may have been raised there by long time families doing when it comes time to buy their first home, if they aren’t wealthy. I saw in either gazette or MV Times a few articles regarding a new affordable housing project about to be developed, seems like at least a step in the right direction. I hope this idea is supported, because as you stated, it’s vital to the health of the Island over all, very short sighted not to rectify this big problem in a small island community which is only getting more popular with each passing season. I’m a bit sad to hear of the casino plans – but that’s yet another issue.


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