We found a way to fix housing

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Chioke R. Morais

If you’d asked me 30 years ago if I’d still be here today, I probably would have dismissed the thought. Yet here it is 2049 and I’m sitting at my desk creating this brief “memoir.”

We’ve made amazing progress in the one area I worried about the most. There was a point when there were no affordable housing options for Island residents. That meant our young families, seniors wanting or needing to downsize, small business owners, folks working for the towns and schools, and so many others were leaving the Island. It was looking like the whole place would become seasonal and our community was eroding at an alarming rate. But today, looking in the classifieds, you can find a choice of homeowner and rental opportunities available to all those groups as well as new arrivals seeking the joys of Island life. 

Nearly 50 years ago when I first got involved with improving the housing situation, many were struggling to find someplace to live that didn’t require moving twice or more a year. Unfortunately, it got much worse before it got better. The proliferation of short-term rentals in our beautiful resort area all but consumed housing inventory for a while. 

Happily, as the Island has done so many times in its history, everyone pulled together and after a number of years of planning we were able to create or refurbish 1,000 new units by 2030. In addition, an ongoing development process started adding enough units annually to keep pace with population growth and community need. Of course, it was not an easy process with a fair amount of high-volume discussion before we all agreed on a way forward. 

Funding was a big hurdle. By using funds from a combination of sources, the millions of dollars needed were realized. By 2021, with well over 40 percent of the Island protected from development, the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank rebranded itself the Martha’s Vineyard Conservation Bank with an arm dedicated solely to housing initiatives and 50 percent of real estate transfer tax revenues going there. In addition, a portion of the tax on short-term rentals was tapped. The state, recognizing the severe problem Commonwealth-wide made funds available through a tax on real estate sales exceeding a million dollars. All that flowed through the Conservation Bank, available to the entire Island. At the same time, zoning changes throughout the Island allowed for greater density in those areas that made sense. That helped attract private developers and enabled new small communities of low-rise rentals and condos to be created close to shopping, transportation and other services. 

Of course, the housing problem was not solved without creating a mechanism to deal with wastewater. Septic systems were starting to contaminate the ponds and the few water treatment facilities had nowhere near the capacity necessary. Rather than each town working to solve the problem, a joint task force was created and ultimately a single treatment facility that could service the denser areas of all the towns was centrally located. Certainly we put up with a lot of construction as sewer pipe was laid seemingly everywhere, but the end result was worth it. Not only are all the dense areas of the Island hooked up — everyone on septic had 10 years to switch over – others in the most rural areas had the same period to upgrade to state-of the-art systems that could denitrify the waste. The Conservation Bank was used to subsidize the change for those needing financial help. As a result of all the effort, the ponds began to recover, revitalizing the fishing and shellfishing industries. 

Today, we are more wholesome community. Far fewer young adults live with their parents. Stable housing has meant fewer health problems, both physical and mental, especially for kids. Educational outcomes are better and folks just seem more relaxed. And we’re economically more comfortable. With fewer commuters filling jobs, local businesses are able to hold back price increases while seeing improved bottom lines as employees spend their income here rather than across the water. 

As with most things, we are more effective as a whole than individually. When the Island works together great things can happen.

Doug Ruskin began advocating for Housing in 2004 and was President of the non-profit Island Housing Trust from 2019 – 2021. He happily “retired” from public activism in 2040.