The state of the state economy

No surprise: Vineyard housing shortage is a big obstacle.

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Michael Goodman described the state of the Massachusetts economy, and how the Vineyard fits in, to a crowd at the Harbor View Hotel. —Stacey Rupolo

On Dec. 1, Michael Goodman, chairman of the Department of Public Policy, University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, spoke at the Harbor View Hotel on the state of the state economy, with special attention to the implications for Martha’s Vineyard. The event was sponsored by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) in partnership with the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce and Dukes County Regional Housing Authority.

Mr. Goodman began on a high note. “Massachusetts is having good times right now; we’re having a robust recovery and expansion from the ‘Great Depression.’ We did not suffer as much as much of the country, especially states like Nevada, Florida, and in southern California, where there was much more speculative homebuilding.” He pointed to the fact that our unemployment rate last month was just 3.3 percent, and that many sectors are looking for workers. “Right now we can’t find people to fill many Post Office jobs in the state,” he said, “and these are good jobs.”

Mr. Goodman explained that white-collar jobs led the expansion, but in the past two years, blue-collar jobs were starting to catch up. The people having the hardest time finding work have been the young, the poorly educated, and the long-term unemployed. Other than around Boston, where the job market is strong, the blue-collar sector had a 15 percent unemployment rate at the height of the recession. Currently the sector’s unemployment rate has improved, but it’s still more than double the state average — 8.8 percent.

In spite of the low-income sector’s high unemployment rate, almost all low-income households have at least one member working, Mr. Goodman said, but in many cases the wages are so low that even if they’re working full-time, they can still be in poverty. Four out of 10 of these families are enrolled in MassHealth. More than ever, the keys to success are education and skill, Mr. Goodman pointed out, and those without these things are being left behind.

Mr. Goodman then turned his attention to Martha’s Vineyard. He referred to a graph that looked like a side view of a comb. It charted the ups and downs of the unemployment rate in Dukes County by season over the past 15 years. From 2000 to 2008, the unemployment rate consistently fluctuated between around 7.5 percent in the winter and 2 percent in the summer. By 2010, the unemployment rate had spiked to around 15 percent in the winter, and about 6 percent in the summer, and this year it was about 10 percent in the winter and 2.5 percent in the summer.The strongest sectors of the Island economy were natural-resource-based industries (primarily fishing), construction (primarily repair of existing structures), and the service economy. These sectors were more robust than the state average, and could be built on going forward.

One of the things that makes the VIneyard economy somewhat unique is our heavy reliance on imported labor. Mr. Goodman pointed to a U.S Census Bureau chart that tracked the flow of labor in Dukes County. In 2014 there were 6,744 payroll jobs recorded in the county. Of these, 1,963 jobs employed people living off-Island. In other words, one-third of our workforce arrived by ferry. Nearly half of these imported jobs went to workers between 30 and 54 years of age, and paid more than $3,333 a month.

We have to pay a premium to import workers from off-Island, which in turn adds to our cost of living, and the reason we’re so reliant on imported workers gets back to housing. Employees are finding it harder and harder to find housing they can afford on the Island.

Mr. Goodman asked the audience if it was true that there were very few year-round rental apartments available on the Island. The response was, “Almost none.”

“That’s a disgrace!” said Mr. Goodman.

Relatively speaking, Massachusetts has done a poor job of producing housing, he said, but the VIneyard has done even worse. He pointed to a graph prepared by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, which showed new homebuilding permits taken out for single-family dwellings since 1980. There was a big spike in 1988, when 600 permits were issued, and a smaller spike at the end of the ’90s, when around 300 permits were issued a year. Other than that, the average number hovered around 200 per year — from 2008 to 2013, the number was about 100. Statistics were not available for 2014–15.

Currently Dukes County has the highest percentage of single-family dwellings of any county in Massachusetts. The state average is about 50 percent, but on the Island, 90 percent of our homes are single-family.

Compounding this problem is the fact that so many of the houses we do have are seasonal houses. In Chilmark, for example, only 20 percent of the homes are year-round — 80 percent of these homes are vacant much of the year. But an increase in single-family houses for year-round residents, in and of itself, is not the answer.

“You have to have multiple-family housing,” said Mr. Goodman, “and more than one dwelling per lot. What really distinguishes the Vineyard is its lack of multiple-family housing.”

“Martha’s VIneyard is special, but not unique,” concluded Mr. Goodman. “It’s going to require some difficult choices.”