Housing bookends


The Martha’s Vineyard housing crisis is real, and it is not restricted to the affordable, subsidized variety. Decent seasonal housing for the employees that fuel the Vineyard summer economy and year-round housing for the men, women, and families that make up the backbone of the Island’s workforce is in unprecedented short supply this year, according to those on the front lines.

This week, two stories by reporter Barry Stringfellow provide bookends to a social issue that will continue to undermine the foundation of our Island community unless and until Island leaders and voters in all six Island towns muster the political will to address it in a comprehensive manner.

Jo Maxwell, chef and co-owner of Chesca’s Restaurant in Edgartown for the past 21 years, described the difficulties she and other business owners are having attracting qualified seasonal help because of a lack of reasonable, seasonal housing.

And John Potter, president of Squash Meadow Construction, a contractor with a record of getting projects built, described his plans for constructing apartments geared to working people who may not qualify for subsidized housing, and the hurdles he and others in the private sector face in tackling the housing challenge.

“A lot of business owners I’ve talked with are desperate,” Ms. Maxwell told The Times.

Ms. Maxwell said there is little available, and what is available is very expensive. “Landlords should be able to make money, but it’s gouging at this point,” she said. “I saw a room in a house with no kitchen privileges for $1,600 a month, and a one-room cabin with an outhouse going for $3,000 a month.”

Property owners with rooms and sheds to spare are reacting to market forces created by the popularity of the Vineyard as a vacation destination, brought on by constant marketing and a strengthening economy in some segments of our society. It may be unfortunate, but it is no surprise that property owners with mortgages and bills to pay might take advantage of the demand to squeeze every last dollar out of every square foot.

The arrival of Airbnb (Feb. 26, “Airbnb lands on Martha’s Vineyard”) has introduced a new dimension to the unfettered and unregulated private Vineyard rental market. Vacant rooms or guest houses that might have once provided seasonal or year-round housing are now easily offered online for rent to short-term visitors.

Irrespective, Island regulators have a responsibility to insure safe and sanitary living conditions. So far, voters have demonstrated little appetite for regulatory control of private rentals in order to address health and welfare concerns.

More than 10 years ago, the issue of substandard and overcrowded rental housing was thrust into the public spotlight after an October 2002 fire destroyed a three-bedroom house with only one bathroom in Edgartown, where 14 Islanders, all Brazilian natives, lived.

Officials in Edgartown moved to adopt rental regulations that would require any owner renting or leasing a building or space for human habitation to have a certificate issued by the town. The proposed regulations were similar to a rental bylaw in effect in the Cape Cod town of Yarmouth.

Several local realtors supported the regulations as a way to regulate the number of tenants in a building, and to ensure clients that the living conditions were safe and up to code. The Edgartown measure passed on town meeting floor, but narrowly failed at the polls.

About the same time, then Tisbury Selectman Ray LaPorte, chairman, proposed an article for annual town meeting warrant, also modeled after the Yarmouth bylaw, that would have set up an annual inspection program for rental properties, and required anyone renting a house, apartment, or room to purchase a certificate of registration from the board of health at a cost of $25.

Mr. LaPorte said he proposed the article because of public safety concerns and as a way to account for the unreported rental units in town. The proposed article did not win support from his colleagues on the board, and Mr. LaPorte agreed the proposed bylaw needed additional comment from the board of health and the zoning departments. It never reappeared.

The Yarmouth bylaw, still in effect, does not allow any person to rent or lease a house or a room in a house for living purposes without first registering with the board of health. It is up to the board of health to determine the number of people who may lawfully occupy the space under state sanitary codes.

That information is then listed on a registration certificate that must be conspicuously posted in the rental unit, which is subject to periodic inspection.

Unlike hotels and inns, private property owners in the rental business are subject to little or no scrutiny. It is time to revisit this issue with the goal of ensuring safety and health guidelines are in place and followed.

The market is changing, and there is likely no turning back. Hoping that property owners will forego vacationeers in favor of seasonal or year-round renters is wishful thinking.