Advocates for a Martha’s Vineyard Housing Bank came before Oak Bluffs selectmen Tuesday night and took heavy criticism from the board over their proposals, especially regarding the short-term rental tax that would be used to fund it.
Selectman Brian Packish was particularly unsparing on the subject, calling the Housing Bank campaign a “smoke show” and demanding to know the name of the private donor who financed campaign manager Makenzie Brookes’ salary.
Brookes and Martha’s Vineyard Housing Bank Committee member Richard Leonard, who is regional president of Cape Cod 5 and chairman of the Island Housing Trust board, pitched use of half of Oak Bluffs’ short-term rental tax to help fund a Vineyard-wide Housing Bank. The idea has been posed across the Island recently, fueled by a nonbinding vote on the concept at 2017 town meetings that achieved a landslide 70 percent in favor result in five out of six Island towns.
That voter enthusiasm was not reflected in the opinions of Packish and board chairman Gail Barmakian, who criticized Leonard and MaKenzie for an hour on the subject. Selectman Michael Santoro, who participated remotely, and selectmen Greg Coogan hardly got a word in during that time.
Packish said Oak Bluffs is looking for new sources of revenue, especially to offset tax rates — rates that are “painful” for some and forcing others to pull up stakes. “The forecast calls for pain when we start talking about a tax rate,” he said.
He questioned why revenue from the short-term rental tax wouldn’t be better used to ameliorate the residents’ tax burdens, and said Island voters supported a Housing Bank but they didn’t vote on how to fund it. Floating the idea they also overwhelmingly support the use of the short-term rental tax revenue is “spin and propaganda,” Packish said.
Packish also questioned how entities that bring forth ideas like the Housing Bank govern their internal finances.
“One of the things that makes my skin crawl the most,” he said, “and we’ve talked about this a number of times, is the administrative loading with all these entities. When I see all the line items for staff and staff and staff — and I get not everyone can work for free — this hasn’t even been voted in or funded, and you have a campaign manager who I assume is getting paid. How is that funded?”
“Private donations,” Leonard said.
“With this being a public entity [that’s] being proposed, who’s the private donor?”
“That’s private. It’s private donors,” Leonard said.
“It’s a private donor pushing a public entity toward public funds and you can’t release who that is?” Packish asked. “Those are all the problems in this smoke show.”
Leonard characterized the funding from the short-term rental tax as “a revenue source that is derived from a market reality that is exacerbating the problem of housing on the Island.” He pushed through crosstalk with Packish to explain the housing plight further.
“We all know there’s a strong need for year-round housing on the Island. It’s going to cost a good amount of money and [require] a lot of collaboration,” he said. “The impact of the demand for housing in the summer has pushed up the cost of housing to purchase and has made year-round rentals nonexistent.”
Leonard went on to say the short-term rental tax was “a dependable source of revenue that can help offset and begin to address the need we have to create Island-wide year-round housing opportunities to help stabilize the fabric of our community, which is our workforce and our retirees and the community people who have been part of this community forever — we all know that.”
“We all know that,” Barmakian echoed.
“When you say that we’re taking the taxpayers’ money,” Leonard continued, “no, we’re not. We’re asking, Is this what people want to invest in? Do we see it as a need that’s vital to the community that hasn’t yet had enough investment to begin to address a problem that we’ve identified many years ago and have not made any headway toward?”
Barmakian said for a second time what Leonard proposed was treating “symptoms” but not the disease behind them.
Leonard asked her to explain what she meant. Barmakian said speculative real estate investors are hyperinflating the real estate market on the Vineyard.
“Treating the symptom is to provide more housing while meanwhile those homes are still being bought and short-term rentals increase,” she said.
She went on to say some places are controlling the “disease” by zoning and by limiting the number of short-term rentals, and some are considering banning short-term rentals altogether.
“Does addressing that solve the problem?” Leonard said. “Or is there still a need to create some new housing from the existing structures that we have, or from new projects and plans to meet the need for year-round housing? I think the answer is it’s still necessary to create housing.”
Packish said he could support a Housing Bank, but would rather see it funded by private equity.
“To me the ask is just too big,” he said of the short-term rental tax. He said he would like to see more preparation, a “properly vetted” process, and a staged formation plan for the bank spread over one to two years that Oak Bluffs can have input in along the way.
“I’d like to see us enter into a conversation that way — rather than [you] show up with a petition and a town meeting article that says we’ve got percentages, we’re going to town meeting, we’ll fill the room, we’re going to take 3 percent, and we just believe in this mission so much that we’re not really that concerned as to how it impacts other things.”
Leonard told Packish he framed the situation unfairly. Packish conceded he did, but qualified that by saying, “But from the outside looking in, it’s hard not to see it that way.”
The selectmen tabled the subject and suggested more discussion should be held on the matter, but did not slate a time to do so.
In other business, the board voted 4-0 to increase dockage fees by 50 cents per boat foot on the recommendation of harbor advisory committee chairman John Breckenridge. The fee hike was spurred by inquiries from Santoro as to how more revenue might be gleaned from the harbor. Santoro said the harbor advisory committee voted unanimously to approve the increase. Barmakian read a passage from a committee letter to the town that estimated the fee hike could bring in $70,000 to $90,000 in 2019.
Breckenridge told the board marina.com named Oak Bluffs Harbor one of the best in America. The board praised Harbormaster Todd Alexander for managing the harbor so well. The board also voted 4-0 to reappoint Robert Huss to the Steamship Authority Port Council.
Selectman Jason Balboni was absent from the meeting.