Creative solution needed for housing crunch
To the Editor:
A few months ago, I wrote a letter to the editor (Dec. 29, “Conservation and affordable housing: Martha’s Vineyard can have both”) suggesting land conservancies consider voluntarily releasing 1 percent of their holdings (260 of their 26,000 acres, which account for approximately 43 percent of the entire Island) to be used for affordable housing. The letter has generated conversations and a few written responses. I’d like to take a closer look at this proposition.
Everyone knows that affordable housing (for doctors, nurses, teachers, police, and the entire workforce) is one of the two most important problems facing the Vineyard, along with opioid addiction. Most agree we will be a train wreck if the affordable housing problem isn’t solved, sooner rather than later, unless the idea of having workers commute to the Island and having fewer and fewer young adults, Island characters, and young children is the goal. (The opioid addiction problem also needs some forward thinking.)
The 2 percent Land Bank tax on real estate sales was creative, out of the box, genius. It has been more successful than anyone could have possibly imagined. But having nearly 50 percent of the entire land mass of the Island in conservation has also driven up land prices enormously, squeezing out year-round citizens. I don’t think that was the intent of the Land Bank tax. Its purpose was to preserve the pastoral beauty and health of the ecology of Martha’s Vineyard.
Today we need to apply the same sort of forward thinking for a solution to affordable housing. Again, we are faced with preserving the social ecology and economy of the Vineyard,which includes humans. The conventional wisdom suggests to “balance” this ecology, we need approximately 500 houses for low- and moderate-income families, who are hardworking and community-contributing families. People who enrich our community.
With the expectation that there will be approximately 30,000 acres in conservancy within the next decade, 260 acres of that is less than 1 percent, needed to provide a reasonable amount of housing. No one can reasonably argue that carving out small enclaves of land to cluster groups of modest bungalows for seasonal workers needs will hurt the environment or hamper conservation efforts. It could be accomplished with thoughtful and competent research and design.
I say “seasonal” housing for the following reasons: Currently thousands of seasonal workers come to the Island every spring. They, along with the increased income brought in by high-end seasonal rentals, compete with working people who would need year-round rentals for a stable lifestyle. (The Vineyard shuffle is a horror show for long-term residents — especially families.) Low-cost, low-impact seasonal housing, hidden on what is now conservation land, would cost less and have little impact on the ecology of the Island, since it would be vacant for eight or nine months per year, and could be designed with nearly no nitrogen loading. It would relieve a great deal of pressure on the year-round rental population (who can’t afford to purchase housing) that is forced to move at least two times per year. (How to address the other pressures on year-round renters, such as expensive seasonal rentals, is another conversation and problem that also needs to be solved.)
So let there be a competition for architects, designers, and landscape designers for zero-impact, seasonal enclaves of housing tucked away from view and used during the season.
It’s to everyone’s advantage to have a stable, year-round affordable means of housing.
Over the next several months, I will be attending selectmen’s meetings in all the towns to ask them to consider employing “friendly eminent domain,” which relies on the cooperation of the nonprofit conservancies. Some say this is possible, and others say it is not. My intention is to get to the bottom of this issue, which will take financial investment by either the towns or interested individuals to confirm if this sort of land transfer is, in fact, possible. It will require the nonprofit conservancies — not the Land Bank, which is regulated by law — to embrace this idea. Nonprofit conservancies have a bit of latitude.