Housing needs study reveals a growing, aging population

A chart of population figures based on information from the Martha's Vineyard Housing Needs Assessment preliminary report shows how much the Island has changed since 1930. — Photo by Kristófer Rabasca

Demographic data culled from the preliminary, partial draft of the Martha’s Vineyard Housing Needs Assessment Study Committee report reveals a growing, changing Island, both better off financially and poorer than it was 20 years ago, and whose family size is shrinking as its population is aging.

The preliminary report was released in December. According to the report, its focus is “to gain an understanding of the current housing dynamic Island-wide and in each community.” Several sections short of completion, the partial report is almost 170 pages, much of it filled with charts and data.

The report should be finished sometime in April, according to the group’s chairman, Aquinnah town manager Adam Wilson. It is funded by the six Island towns, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, and the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development.

Prepared by consultant Karen Sunnarborg, it is packed with demographic data culled from United States census data, data from the individual towns, from the state, and from an assortment of other studies.

The Times has extracted some of the demographic data and charts, most of it about the year-round population and not strictly related to the affordable housing question the report was designed to address. Rather, the goal here is to paint a broad picture of the Vineyard community.


The year-round Island population was just under 5,000 in 1930. It grew slowly, reaching just over 6,000, 40 years later, but in the ten years following, the population increased by almost 50 percent, to 9,000 by 1980.

There was 30 percent growth in the next decade, to 11,600 in 1990, and again by 29 percent, to 15,000 in 2000. A slowdown in the growth rate to 10 percent increased the population to 16,500 in 2010. The population has grown 10 percent in each of the last two, two-year periods to about 18,000 at the end of 2012.

In the last 82 years, West Tisbury grew more than any other Island town, increasing by a factor of 1,049 percent, from 270 residents to 3,100, while the Island as a whole grew 268 percent. Tisbury grew the least, 172 percent, from 1,541 to 4,194.

The report finds that population projections estimate additional growth to a population of 21,694 by 2020, “perhaps an overestimate but not inconceivable given recent growth.”

Three quarters of the Island’s year-round population lives in the down-Island towns. Oak Bluffs has the largest percentage of year-round Island residents with 26 percent, Edgartown has almost 25 percent, then Tisbury with 24, West Tisbury 17, Chilmark 6.5, and Aquinnah at 2.6 percent.

In the 30 years between 1980 and 2010 only the county of Nantucket in Massachusetts experienced a larger percentage growth, at 100 percent, compared with Dukes County, 85 percent. The state average was 14 percent.

The United States census figures from 2010 show that Aquinnah had the highest percentage of minority residents at 42.4 percent, taking account of the Wampanoag population, Oak Bluffs was next with 16 percent, Tisbury had 13.7 percent, followed by Edgartown with 11.7 percent, West Tisbury with 5 percent and Chilmark with 3.6 percent. The Island average was 12.4 percent. A total of 27.6 percent of the United States population is non-white, according to the federal census.

Since 1990, there has been a dramatic increase in the middle aged population on the Island and a significant shift in the age distribution of Islanders overall. By far the most significant change in Island demographics is the change in residents between the ages of 45 and 65. This group increased from 2,158, or 18.5 percent of the overall population in 1990, to 5,645, or 34 percent in 2010. An increase of 162 percent, while the Island growth rate for all residents was 42 percent for the same period.

The age trend here in the last few years leans toward fewer young folk and more older folk, and the Island has fewer children and more seniors than most communities in the state. There are 470 more people under the age of 18 living on the Island in 2010 than in 1990, but 225 less than in 2000. The over-65 population increased by 866 between 1990 and 2010. The median age increased from 37.3 years to 45.3, over that 20-year period. The Massachusetts median age was 39.1, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

In 1990, 23 percent of the Island population was under 18; the percentage declined to 19 percent in 2010. In the same period the number of people over 65 increased from 15.7 to 16.3 percent of the population. Residents 85 and older doubled in number, growing from 195, or 1.7 percent, to 391, or 2.4 percent.


In the last 20 years, the number of households has increased while the the household size decreased. The Vineyard population grew by 42 percent from 1990 to 2010, while the number of households increased by 47 percent. In 2010, the average Island household size was 2.22 persons, compared to 2.3 in 1990. There were 7,368 households in 2010, 5,000 in 1990.

In 2010, one third of all households were single person households. A total of 37 percent of single person households were over 65 years of age. Of households with families, single parent families were 31 percent of the total, and 71 percent of these were single mother households. An estimated 2,300 households contained two persons.


While more than 25 percent of Island households, 1,449 in number, earned less than $35,000 in 2010, incomes on the Island increased substantially and at a faster rate than in the rest of the state between 1990 and 2010. The median household income doubled during this period, from $31,994 in 1990 to $62,407 by 2010, inching closer to the state’s median of $63,961, after a 73 percent increase statewide. Those earning less than $35,000 decreased by half between 1989 and 2010, from 53.6 percent of all households to 26.2 percent, but still represent a substantial portion of the population. In total, 2,177 households earned less than $50,000. Those with higher incomes, earning more than $75,000, increased from 544 or 10.7 percent of all households in 1989, to 2,431 or 44 percent by 2010. This level was comparable to the state, at 43.1 percent.

Of the Island towns, Chilmark had the highest median household income in 2010 of $72,917, followed by West Tisbury, $71,667, Edgartown $67,625, Oak Bluffs $59,156, Tisbury $58,551, and Aquinnah $57,500.

Almost half of those over 65 had incomes of less than $35,000.

While poverty levels were lower than the state overall, the numbers and percentages of those living in poverty has been climbing on the Vineyard. The number of individuals and families in poverty almost doubled between 1990 and 2010 to a total of 232 families, 1,422 individuals. The poverty numbers tripled for those 65 years of age or older, to 194.


The numbers of people employed year-round on the Vineyard has increased from just over 5,000 in 1990 to 8,425 in 2010, a 66 percent increase. In 2010, 5.9 percent of the total workforce of 8,949 was unemployed. The national unemployment rate in 2010 hovered around 9.7 percent.

Jobs in the service and construction sectors experienced dramatic increases in the last two decades. Services, which includes professional, health care, education, food, entertainment, accommodations among others, grew 224 percent, from 1,118 jobs to 3,626 jobs in 2010. Construction trade jobs increased 392 percent, from 368 to 1,810 jobs. Jobs in finance and manufacturing rose by just over 150 percent.

Losses were recorded in retail and wholesale jobs, which decreased by 41 percent, government jobs dipped by 68 percent, and transportation and warehousing dropped by 45 percent.

Seasonal employment figures show that a high of close to 15,000 people were employed on the Island in August of both 2011 an 2012, and a low in February, 2011, of 8,200.

The draft report is available in its entirety as a PDF on the Times’ website.

An earlier version overstated the total percentage of Island towns’ growth by 100% in both the story and the accompanying chart. The error was detected by Geoffrey Berresford of New York and West Tisbury.