Affordable housing is part of the solution

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To the Editor:

This letter was sent in support of H.2895 to the Joint Committee on Revenue.

I write today in support of H.2895, an act empowering cities and towns to impose a fee on home sales over one million dollars to support affordable housing.

I am a resident of Edgartown, on Martha’s Vineyard, and among other civic engagements here I am recording clerk of Martha’s Vineyard Friends Meeting (Quakers). Quakers have for four centuries been concerned with the amelioration of social arrangements and with resolution of the causes and circumstances of conflict. I participate in the Island Clergy association, representing Quakers. I am also treasurer of the Martha’s Vineyard Peace Council. The Peace Council fosters peace founded on justice and sustained by goodwill. The issues addressed by H.2895 are very much in the focus of these organizations. Having just been alerted to a hearing on this bill, I have not brought the matter before either organization for consideration and action; consequently, I write as an individual citizen.

The unhoused would be invisible casualties but for the work of Harbor Homes and of the Island Clergy Association. Corrosive effects of housing insecurity are easier to see. An unmeasured proportion of our year-round population are forced to do the ‘Island shuffle’, moving twice a year, lucky if they get any rental at all for the summer. Homelessness and housing insecurity prevail while 75-80% of our housing stock lies idle in the winter months — that was before pandemic-panicked exurbanites began buying up the remaining fraction at astonishing prices. Housing costs are typically more than half the income of a year-round family. Food insecurity follows close behind. Can there be any wonder at the high incidence of stress, illness, psychological distress, domestic violence, and substance abuse?

I have a couple of rooms and a one-bedroom guesthouse that I rent year round. I could earn two or three times as much by being a ‘Vineyard shuffle’ landlord. I refuse the temptation. It is too destructive to people and to the community. Providing year-round housing is therefore my civic responsibility as well as a moral imperative. But this view is not universal. There has too long been a mythology afoot that the law of supply and demand determines profit just as the law of gravity causes things to fall. Of course, this is not so. Of course landlords have choices, even when tenants have few or none. But with the fear of not having enough at its root (the proverbial ‘love of money’) too many disregard the costs; and of these too many are absentee speculative investors with no stake in the community and no exposure to the consequences of their choices. For these, the costs are invisible, and economic incentives and disincentives must be part of the solution, such as zoning cut-outs for shared year-round housing, rather than penalizing clustered housing. For example, when I restored the pre-existing kitchen in a mother-in-law walkout apartment downstairs in my house I was forced to subdivide a separate lot for my pre-existing guesthouse. The town would have been wiser to have supported-year round rentals.

These considerations are beyond the scope of H.2895, but it is important to place this vitally important bill in context. Building affordable housing is not a complete or long term solution; it does not scale. The fee on million-dollar sales will not be a significant disincentive to mindless profit-taking. My neighbor just sold two minimum buildable postage-stamp lots for almost half a million apiece. But new affordable housing is a transitional part of a more comprehensive long-term solution, and a growing fund in a Martha’s Vineyard Housing Bank can support a more flexible range of solutions as zoning and other regulations are restructured to curtail rapacious exploitation of a seller’s market and (for the rental housing that remains) a landlord’s market.

Thank you for your consideration of this bill. I respectfully ask that the committee report the bill favorably.

Bruce Nevin
Edgartown