Island business owners address employee housing shortage

Confab sponsored by the Island Housing Trust underscores the problem’s increasing severity.

Sharky's owner Jon Blau said the seasonal housing shortage is a threat to the overall Island economy. — File photo by Michael Cummo

This is the fourth article in a series examining the critical shortage of affordable housing on Martha’s Vineyard and its effects on the community. The series began on Feb. 18 with “Martha’s Vineyard housing shortage reaches critical mass.” It continued March 5 with “Vineyard homeless census raises questions, provides few answers,” and on March 19 with “Putting a face on affordable housing.”

Business owners on Martha’s Vineyard face a gauntlet of obstacles when it comes to turning a profit. Many have only three months to break even, they must know the intricacies of the J-1 and H-2B foreign worker visas, and increasingly, they have to be savvy real estate investors to lock in housing for the people they employ. The paradox of many resort communities is that their innate desirability drives up the cost of housing, which drives out the working class, which eventually has an effect on those who can afford to remain.

Last Thursday, about 30 business owners, along with representatives from Island Housing Trust (IHT) and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, gathered at the Copper Wok restaurant in Vineyard Haven to put their collective heads together to address the critical shortage of workforce housing.

J.B. Blau, owner of the Copper Wok and co-host of the event, provided a sobering account of the situation.

“We had about 250 employees last year, and it was our worst year by far when it came to housing,” he said. “It was astronomically different than the year before.”

Mr. Blau said he heard about the housing problem when he first came to the Island 18 years ago, but now urgency is the order of the day. “We need to start now to get it together, so in three years or five years, when we’re all working every shift ourselves, we don’t go back and say, ‘I wish we’d done something sooner.’ If we don’t recognize what’s about to happen, then we are not good business people.”

Mr. Blau said there are many facets to the problem and homeowners have an incentive to tap the summer weekly market. “When an owner sees they can get $4,000 a week, that year-round property goes away,” he said.

Richard Leonard, regional president of the Cape Cod 5 and chairman of the IHT, said the severity of the housing problem is, ironically, exacerbated by an improving economy. “When the economy was down and summer rentals were down, people who owned second homes were more willing to rent on a year-round basis,” he said. “Obviously that’s changed dramatically.”

Mr. Leonard said there is a need for a paradigm shift in affordable housing, because despite best efforts, the problem has only become more acute.

“For years the Island Housing Trust has been working with other organizations, like Habitat for Humanity and the Duke’s County Regional Housing Authority, and the truth is, we’re barely making a dent,” he said. “As much success as we’ve had, I feel like a failure. The reason I say that is people still don’t understand the importance of this problem to community, and don’t understand the collaboration that it’s going to take. There’s not one answer. There are many pieces that have to come together. That makes this problem much more challenging, but it’ll be that much more rewarding when we get it done.”

Mr. Leonard said discussions about zoning changes are gaining traction, and he cited accessory apartments, which are permitted by the town of West Tisbury, as an example. He also suggested taking a close look at the various agencies dedicated to affordable housing, to see if reorganization might be in order. “To me, nothing is sacred at this point. We have to look at this from all sides,” he said.

Island business owners talk
Tom Seeman, owner of Island Source, a distribution company, has a year-round staff of six that goes up to 10 in the summer. Last year he hired his first foreign worker since he went into business 31 years ago, because increasingly fewer college students come to work on the Island.

“I had a guy from Kosovo work for me last summer,” Mr. Seeman said. “He was very bright, very hard-working, but he had to move three times, and each time his situation got worse, until he ended up sharing a floor of a house in O.B. with 15 people, with one bathroom and an outdoor shower. He was miserable, understandably. There’s a lack of morality here that the Island can’t support,” he said.

Mr. Seeman said he pays his year-round workers well and provides them health coverage, yet only one of them can afford a house. “He works two other jobs, very actively, and his wife works full-time too. The other people that work for me make too much to qualify for [DCRHA] housing,” he said.

Rita Brown, co-owner of Martha’s Vineyard Gourmet Cafe and Bakery and Back Door Donuts, hires 26 employees from mid-April to mid-October for her seasonal business. Every summer she has to find housing for the 15 to 20 foreign workers who come to the Island on J-1 visas.

“It gets harder to find clean, decent housing every year, no question,” she said. “Sometimes someone will rent me a room, which I think is good for an Islander to make a little bit of money and have a nice kid live with them. But last year I had some employees who were being charged $150 a week to live in a tent.”

Ms. Brown said she pays for a year-round rental for her pastry chef, the linchpin of the business. “Some of the American students are so good with social media, they were better at finding housing than I am. Last year they found a place on Craigslist, I went over to check it out, and it was very nice.”

The topic of dormitory housing came up repeatedly during the afternoon. Ms. Brown suggested that zoning flexibility to allow mobile homes could help. “Without creating a trailer park, mobile homes are much more affordable,” she said.

“We talk a lot about so called mini-housing,” Dan Seidman, treasurer for IHT, said. “Units of 600 to 800 square feet can help fill a niche, and can also create employment by building them here on the Island.”

Ms. Brown suggested an affordable housing fund that is financed by a small tithe on real estate transactions, similar to the Land Bank. Mr. Seidman said years ago there was momentum behind that idea, but when the initiative made it to the state senate, it was roundly crushed with the help of powerful real estate lobbies.

Mr. Seidman said a tax or required permit on home rentals has also been discussed as a revenue source for affordable housing.

Service suffers

Mr. Blau, owner of five Island eateries that stay open year-round, said the seasonal housing shortage is a threat to the overall Island economy.

“This is also about self-preservation for our businesses,” he said. “As the housing goes, the service goes, and if the service goes down, people don’t come back. I don’t know if people fully understand what the service industry does to create an identity for the tourists. It’s massive. If the service quality drops, they’ll go to Newport next time. We’re competing with places that can pull their workforce from a 50-mile radius. We’re an Island, we obviously can’t do that.

“I heard about one business that is contemplating buying a boat to bring people over from the mainland. That’s ridiculous. I don’t want to get to the point where I have to have the Patriot drive my bartenders home at 2 am. Then you get a windy day and you’re in big trouble.”

Mr. Blau employs 250 people in his five restaurants; all stay open year-round, seven days a week. He rents six houses year-round to accommodate his summer workforce. “I lose money nine months a year to make my money the other three months,” he said. “We guarantee landlords their money if people skip out on their last payment, and that helps. Our utmost priority is to secure housing for the year-round staff.”

Mr. Blau said the severity of the shortage in the past 18 months has taken a toll. “A lot of summer people decided not to come down last year,” he said. “It’s even worse when the year-round people throw in the towel because the stress of the seasonality is just too much. The stress level goes up for everyone around this time of year — employees don’t know if they can stay, and you don’t know if they’re staying with you.”

A discussion about the need for a paradigm shift led to a joke about bringing in barges for summer housing, which led to another joke about bringing cruise ships into the harbor to house summer help.
“Or convert one of the old steamship ferries into a dorm, then send it to Florida in the winter,” Mr. Blau said, half joking. “We have to shake things up. If we don’t, it’s going to be Jaws all over again, only instead of people running from a shark, they’ll be running from our service.”