A Housing Bank may have been shot down by voters, but the fight for action against the Island’s housing crisis is far from over.
Tucked away in the Tisbury Town Hall Annex Wednesday night, members of the All-Island Planning Board and several town affordable housing committee members voted to have elected officials in each town approach their selectmen and ask how to implement each town’s housing production plan (HPP) with the hope of reviving the idea of a Housing Bank or some other method to tackle the Island’s housing crisis.
Towns were tasked with creating HPPs in 2016 to address their affordable and workforce housing needs. The strategy intends to handle each town separately, based on its individual HPP, but bringing the short-term rental tax — which did not exist when the HPPs were created — as a way to fund potential housing projects.
The Housing Bank failed to get voter approval in all Island towns. West Tisbury initially approved the Housing Bank, but then backpedaled and sent it to committee.
After the Housing Bank failed, Doug Ruskin, president of the Island Housing Trust board of directors, said he learned two things — there’s overwhelming support to work on housing issues, and selectmen don’t like to be told what to do. Any plan going forward needed a revenue stream and selectmen involvement. “If the voters truly want to solve this, I don’t see any way to solve it without significantly more money,” Ruskin said.
Ben Robinson, a member of the Tisbury planning board and a member of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC), agreed with Ruskin, but said a real estate transfer tax should be considered — not just revenue from the expanded short-term rental tax. “Money is key,” Robinson said.
Despite getting shot down in Edgartown, Lucy Morrison, an Edgartown planning board member, felt it was not the decision voters wanted. She said there were “scare tactics” used to dissuade people from supporting the Housing Bank. “I don’t think the voters want that. I think voters understand that this is a problem that crosses all town borders,” Morrison said.
Island Housing Trust executive director Philippe Jordi said regionalization is challenging, but education about housing models could open the public’s minds. “I think there’s a multifaceted approach that has to happen, in terms of educating people about models that work,” Jordi said.
Ruskin brought up the airport’s new director, Cindi Martin, as an example of how bad housing issues are on the Island. He said the home Martin was supposed to move into was rented out for the summer. Martin was hired by the airport in May with a $165,000 annual salary plus a $2,000 monthly housing stipend.
The glaring elephant not in the room was Oak Bluffs. Dan Seidman, chairman of the Tisbury planning board, said he reached out to Ewell Hopkins, the Oak Bluffs planning board chairman, who told him Oak Bluffs would not be attending the meeting.
Oak Bluffs was one of the strongest opponents to a regional Housing Bank. The town drafted a letter to state Rep. Dylan Fernandes, D-Falmouth, and state Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro, in February stating their opposition. Oak Bluffs got Tisbury and Edgartown to endorse the letter.
At Oak Bluffs’ annual town meeting in April, voters shot down the proposed Housing Bank. Town administrator Robert Whritenour gave an entire slideshow presentation on how a regional Housing Bank would hurt the town.
Speaking to The Times by phone Thursday, Hopkins said Oak Bluffs voters were clear they did not want a Housing Bank, and continuing the discussion on it would be futile. “When my town says we’re out, we’re out,” Hopkins said. “It would be a mockery of democracy to meet with other planning boards to advance what we know our town doesn’t want.”
The short-term rental tax money was not on the table when Hopkins and other town leaders helped create Oak Bluffs’ HPP.
“Things have changed,” Hopkins said. “Our commitment to housing has not. We are going in a different direction with housing … Oak Bluffs is not going to get on board with a new regional revenue-sharing model until we adjust the inequities in the current regional high school funding formula itself.”
The All-Island Planning Board was in consensus they had momentum on addressing housing issues, and getting both proponents and opponents involved was key.
“This is a little bit of a choir, and we’re not hearing the other side of it,” Robinson said. “There were a lot more on the other side, given the town meetings, and I think it would behoove us to do that work; otherwise we’re going to end up in the same place that we’ve ended up for the past 30 years.”