The idea of a Housing Bank was first floated two years ago, as towns were getting ready to do their annual dances at town meetings and in town elections. The Housing Bank concept was warmly greeted on the Island, with the exception of Edgartown, where officials didn’t like talk that Community Preservation funds might be used as a funding mechanism.
The concept of a Housing Bank, which would be governed similarly to the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank, was approved by the other five towns, and that’s pretty much as far as it went. It was nonbinding, and there was no funding mechanism in place. Among the ideas that were floated was to use the 2 percent Land Bank surcharge that’s added to the sale of properties on the Island that’s currently being used to buy and manage land for conservation, but that never gained any traction either.
So for a couple of years, there’s been a pretty good idea out there, widely supported by the year-round population (when do you get more than 70 percent support for anything these days?), but with no way to move it forward.
And, so, the affordable housing crisis on Martha’s Vineyard marches along with some small victories — mostly by the folks at Island Housing Trust and Habitat for Humanity — and a whole lot of angst that the Island continues to bleed young people and families unable to stay here because they can’t afford it.
There is a new idea out there that deserves some attention. As 2018 turned to 2019, Gov. Charlie Baker finally signed the short-term rental bill into law. It’s estimated that the additional tax revenue from being able to tax Airbnb, Vacation Rental By Owner, and other short-term rental units could generate as much as $5 million for Island towns.
There’s no shortage of ways to spend that money, but a group of housing advocates is out campaigning, gathering signatures for petition articles to go before each of the Island communities’ town meetings this spring. They want a piece of the pie. Because it’s “found money,” the towns won’t miss it and, after all, everyone can agree that there is a need for affordable housing.
We’ve made the case previously that creating an adequate supply of housing for all of our neighbors is a fundamental and high priority for any community. To date, the Island’s policy makers have been slow to find solutions. This latest proposal gives them an opportunity to show the type of leadership they’ve only given lip service to in the past, instead of kicking the proverbial can down the road for someone else to solve at a later date.
We need the type of housing that will make it possible for year-round workers to live here before it gets any more difficult for the Island to attract the workforce it needs in areas of education, public safety, healthcare, retail, and restaurants. We also need to meet the needs of our aging population, who increasingly find it difficult to stay in their homes, but who don’t want to leave the Island they love.
In the rollout of this plan to use short-term rental taxes to generate money for a Housing Bank, Dan Seidman, an affordable housing advocate, points out that use of this tax money makes sense because the sizable income generated from seasonal rentals has encouraged many of them to take that housing off the year-round rental market for people who need housing to live and work here.
“Money that wasn’t being charged in the past is now going to be charged. And the person that’s going to pay it is the person that’s visiting … they are the problem, and they are also the solution,” Seidman said.
By using these funds, it won’t hurt Islanders financially, Seidman points out. No one is going to decide not to come to Martha’s Vineyard for a vacation because a 6 percent tax is tacked onto the weekly price for a summer rental, he said.
And, sure enough, Massachusetts is one of the last tourist destinations to begin taxing short-term rentals.
“We can all work together,” Seidman said. “We’re not asking our taxpayers, we’re not adding to our real estate tax, we’re not asking you to pay more sales tax, we’re not adding anything to you who live here year-round. We’re saying, ask these people who come here and benefit, enjoy their time here, and we love to have them. They spend the money, it’s good for the Island, it’s good for employment. The opposite effect of that is it creates this problem where we don’t have sufficient housing.”
This won’t kill the golden goose, but it just might provide some money to fix an old, nagging problem. We should all listen with an open mind, and give this proposal a full and fair hearing. Because if there’s a better idea out there, we haven’t heard it yet.