Reframe thinking about housing


To the Editor:

As affordable housing is now firmly at the forefront of our community discourse, I am compelled to address some of the arguments that have been posed against various housing projects around the Island, and to propose that we collectively reframe our thinking.

Opponents of affordable housing plans frequently claim environmental concern as a justification for their resistance. I celebrate care for the earth as an integral aspect of our community values. Environmental protection is critical, and the dedication to conservation and stewardship on this Island is exceptional. However, to oppose efforts for attainable housing options under the vague guise of environmentalism casts presumptive charges of inevitable damage in bad faith. It assumes that the two interests are mutually exclusive, and relies on binary thinking that insists the only way we can care for the land is by conserving it outright, or else sacrifice it to total destruction. This underestimates our capacity for technical ingenuity and holistic design, and cynically expects that we are only capable of the same careless methods of development that have led to our current global environmental crisis. It is also a tacit accusation that those working on housing efforts lack environmental concern, disregarding a track record of involvement by housing advocates in environmental initiatives and ongoing partnerships between housing and conservation organizations that demonstrate their intersectionality and shared values.

Development restrictions and conservation are highly necessary for the protection of critical natural landscapes, rare and threatened species habitat, shorelines, and wetlands. Still, there are also objective methods for assessing and managing the ecological impacts of housing projects that can be utilized for the aim of environmental stewardship beyond the boundaries of conserved land. With good planning, affordable home sites can still be wooded. They can manage, capture, and clean water. They can support wildlife, provide corridors, and protect native species. They can harness renewable energy. They can grow food, sequester carbon, and be beautiful.

Citing a higher-than-average unit density is not in itself a compelling oppositional argument, either. Typically, higher-density, multi-unit dwellings are objectively less environmentally damaging than our status quo of low-density patterns of single family homes. Denser settlements of multi-unit structures allow for improved energy efficiency, shared utilities installation and access, consolidated new road construction, minimized habitat fragmentation, and an overall smaller footprint of landscape disturbance per resident.

Regarding common, presumptuous arguments about potential excessive noise and neighborhood disturbance: There is no decent indicator that renters or owners of affordable housing units will not reside respectfully in their homes, as good neighbors, just as is expected of any market-value homeowner. To deny potential residents this benefit of the doubt is frankly classist. Raising these concerns as if they are reasonable arguments against housing projects asserts that the possibility of simply being made occasionally aware of other humans’ existence nearby is a personal sacrifice that somehow outweighs others’ basic material needs.

Iterations of these opposing positions have been used to marginalize low-income communities, disproportionately people of color, for generations. National patterns of affordable housing availability have effectively segregated those communities to areas more vulnerable to pollution, environmental hazards, and extreme weather events, in poorer-quality and less efficient structures, to the detriment of their health, well-being, and economic potential. This has systematically denied these populations the access to valuable home equity, financial stability and generational wealth building that is afforded to wealthier, predominantly white communities. 

As climate change impacts accelerate globally, low-income communities face the most elevated risk of climate-related livelihood insecurity and displacement. Martha’s Vineyard is not exempt from these trends. Categorical portrayal of affordable housing projects on accessible, buildable lots as threats to an area’s character and environmental integrity communicates a goal of forcing those of lesser means to places already too degraded and hazardous for anyone else.

Good planning and design are imperative for any development to be environmentally appropriate and socially equitable. We can insist that housing development funded by tax dollars reflects our environmental values without rejecting it outright. These projects afford us an opportunity for more critical oversight and creative collaboration than the ongoing development of spec houses, second homes, or estate expansions ever has. It is absolutely reasonable to request that affordable housing developers detail the environmental viability and impact of their projects, and that they consider a diversity of solutions, including retrofit and redevelopment of existing structures and disturbed areas, in addition to new development. It is not reasonable to preemptively decry that the allocation or purchase of land for affordable housing is a death wish for that land.

There are myriad ecology, landscape, green building, and energy specialists among us, including the Wampanoag people, who have inhabited this land for millennia and who are generous in sharing their generational wisdom with the rest of us. This local wealth of expertise can and should be engaged by housing organizations to collaboratively assess the landscape, the needs of the people, and the prospects for surpassing our own development standards to keep housing attainable in perpetuity and set good examples of what sustainable, equitable human settlement can look like. Energy spent ardently fighting against housing initiatives can be better used for that aim. The causes of housing and environmentalism do not exist in silos, and we must take a whole-systems lens to see possibilities beyond individualistic self-interest.


Mary Sage Napolitan
West Tisbury