Do You Hear the People Sing

Housing bank votes start next week, when four island towns — Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, Tisbury, and West Tisbury — hold their annual town meetings (ATMs), and three of the four (all except Tisbury) hold their elections two days later.

ATMs are always important, but this town meeting season feels almost apocalyptic to me. On the warrant of all six ATMs and on the ballot for all six town elections is the proposal to create the Martha’s Vineyard Housing Bank. The Housing Bank would create a blueprint and a democratic structure to increase the stock of year-round housing, rental and for sale, within the reach of year-round working people: teachers, health-care workers, carpenters, mechanics, etc., etc., etc. You can read the warrant article itself here.

I could go into how desperate the need is, but if you live here you already know it and if you don’t — well, housing is a critical issue in many places, and if you look at a map, you’ll notice that it’s harder to commute to Martha’s Vineyard than to Boston or Worcester or Springfield. Ever-increasing numbers of workers do commute, however, because, you guessed it, they can’t afford housing. I could go on at some length about that. Some other time maybe.

Here I want to do a jump shift. This past Saturday I went to the student production of Les Misérables at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. I’ve never seen Les Mis live, only the movie, but “Do You Hear the People Sing” is one of my favorite songs of all time and any story about people coming together to resist oppression is my story too. So Les Mis and the imminent votes on the Housing Bank are all tangled together in my head.

No barricades have been stormed (yet), but the Coalition to Create the Martha’s Vineyard Housing Bank has worked a miracle. I’ve said for years that Martha’s Vineyard couldn’t organize itself out of a paper bag — our six contentious towns have led many a state official and local organizer to despair — but this isn’t true. We’re good at organizing to help individual neighbors in need, and we’re good at organizing to keep things from happening. These efforts may not achieve their objectives, but they do get people fired up and doing all the things that can create change: going to meetings, speaking in public, writing letters to the editor, contacting officials . . .

The Housing Bank Coalition has profited from these examples. It’s big, well-organized, multi-generational and multi-occupational. It involves people from all six towns. It even involves many real estate brokers. (This is noteworthy because the statewide real estate lobby has been a major force over the years in blocking efforts to deal with the worsening housing crisis.)

Over the last year and a half the Housing Bank Coalition has organized down to the grassroots and up to the highest levels of state politics. It has connected with organizations across the commonwealth working on housing-related issues. It has worked with the six town governments to ensure that the wording of the ATM warrant is the same in all six towns. (Someone should write a book or make a movie about how they managed to do this.) They have managed to impress upon our fractious populace and our turfy town officials the importance of going to the state legislature (which has to approve whatever proposal we come up with) unified.

It learned from the failed effort three years ago, which came together too fast and too shallow, in response to a possible funding source — an add-on to the room tax — that was controversial in itself, because quite a few Vineyarders do short-term rentals to help pay their long-term mortgages. This time around, the proposed funding mechanism is a transfer fee on high-end real estate transactions — comparable to how the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank has been successfully funded since 1986. Several bills to enable such a fee are currently before the state legislature.

Back to Les Mis and a particular line from my favorite song: “Beyond the barricade is there a world you want to see?” Look forward, it says. Dare to imagine. “Mourn the dead,” as labor organizer Mother Jones reportedly said; “fight like hell for the living.”

No, we can’t go back before subdivisions, before “the season” sprawled from Labor Day to Columbus Day to Christmas and beyond. The six towns may retain some of their old character, but no way can they ever be as autonomous and insular as they were in “the old days.” The grassroots theater and music scene of the 1970s through mid-’90s isn’t coming back. Neither are cheap winter rentals. We can mourn their passing, but we can’t go back.

In the world I want to see, people live and work within reach of each other. We range in age from just-born to over a hundred. No one has to work three jobs and/or pay 50% of their income for housing. We all have free time to invest in activities that don’t pay anything (or not much): raising families, making art, volunteering for non-profits, coaching kids’ sports or playing sports ourselves, getting involved in town and regional government, and so on and on. We have thriving public spaces where community can happen: libraries, schools, houses of worship, public land.

We can make it happen. Creating the Martha’s Vineyard Housing Bank is the crucial first step. Here’s the M.V. League of Women Voters schedule for 2022 town meetings and town elections, and also the dates and/or links to candidate forums for contested elections. Be there!

And if you hear someone singing in the woods, it might be me.

Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see?
Then join in the fight that will give you the right to be free!

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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