O’Connell: ‘We have an Island housing crisis’

Former Patrick administration official and current Vineyard resident plays key role in housing bank effort.

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Dan O'Connell, a former secretary of housing and economic development, has been offering his expertise to the housing bank coalition. -George Brennan

Daniel O’Connell knows a thing or two about housing and the effects it can have on the business community.

When Gov. Deval Patrick was in office, he tapped O’Connell to be the commonwealth’s first secretary of housing and economic development. “Gov. Patrick was the first governor to decide to merge the two — thinking they were inseparable,” O’Connell said in a conversation with The Times. “Without workforce housing, you can’t grow jobs in the state, and he wanted both in the same secretariat, with complementary programs to encourage job growth and provide housing as close as possible to where the jobs were.”

O’Connell has been coming to the Vineyard for 40 years with his wife and family. In 2019, he moved to West Tisbury as a full-time Island resident.

Doug Ruskin, president of the Island Housing Trust board, and John Abrams, CEO of South Mountain, knew they had a valuable resource living on the Island. When the Coalition to Create the MV Housing Bank steering committee formed, they asked O’Connell to join them.

“It was a pressing situation prior to the COVID health situation, and I think it became — I don’t use the word crisis lightly, there are too many crises in the world today, but I believe we have an Island housing crisis,” O’Connell said. “Median sales price going to $1.2 million on the Island, 700 individuals and families on waiting lists for housing, including 200 children. What does that do to the health of those children? What does that do to the health and educational opportunities and the viability of communities, the fabric of the Vineyard itself? Nurses, lab techs, firefighters, EMTs, teachers — without them we don’t have a viable community on the Island. We have an aging population, which needs even more healthcare. We have an aging workforce that needs to be replaced in these jobs, and where are these people going to find a place to live?”

In the coming weeks, voters in all six Island towns will be asked to consider a housing bank at town meetings and on town election ballots. A 2 percent transfer fee would be paid by the purchaser of a property on the Vineyard. The first $1 million would be exempt from the fee. So the buyer of a home for $1.2 million would pay a 2 percent fee on the $200,000.

O’Connell is concerned about some of the misinformation that’s been circulating about the housing bank idea, and hopes that voters will ask questions and listen to folks who have been working for more than a year on the legislation.

“We’re in the era of misinformation on public issues, and one of the pieces of misinformation that’s floating around is that building workforce housing is going to turn us into a suburban Island, as opposed to the character of it now,” O’Connell said. “But as we developed the warrant article and the legislation, the coalition had a lot of feedback from the environmental community on the Island, the climate change community, and they’re well-represented on the coalition, so the restrictions that were put in there … 75 percent of the money, three-quarters of the money raised, has to be used for existing housing properties. That means conversions, deed restrictions, trying to slow down the Airbnb phenomenon, and the seasonal housing transfers that’s causing and taking housing out of the year-round pool. That’s how the money’s going to be spent — much less so on new units. New units have to be prioritized to be on sites where there’s existing housing.”

All of this has been done while keeping in mind the Island’s sensitive environment. “We included infrastructure — both new and improving infrastructure on existing units that might be purchased or deed-restricted, so we could put in denitrification systems, septic, wastewater treatment for housing,” he said. “We can actually improve the environment, and that’s a goal of the housing bank legislation.”

If the housing bank passes and the legislature gives its blessing, the housing bank is ready to go. Arrangements have been made with the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank to provide administrative assistance to minimize additional bureaucracy. The housing bank will have a similar setup of advisory boards to oversee the process of how the money is spent.

The coalition has held public information sessions and listened to the feedback from Island select boards, O’Connell said. “This legislation and town warrant language really emerged from a broad-ranging public process in two languages — Portuguese and English — everything has been translated along the way, and that input has shaped the warrant article,” he said.

The warning signs of doing nothing are as close as Nantucket. “You look over at our sister Island. It’s out of control over there. The median price is twice what ours is, and the town — a single town — has invested $50 million in tax money in affordable housing, and they’re not dealing with the issue, it’s moving too fast,” O’Connell said. “It’s bad on the Vineyard now, and it’s only going to get worse, and did get worse during COVID. We’ve got to deal with it as soon as possible with the most resources, to start to chip away at the issue and help the people who don’t have adequate housing.”

O’Connell has used his connections on Beacon Hill to keep an eye on the enabling legislation, which is before the Joint Committee on Housing. It remains to be seen if that legislation will report out favorably from committee and be acted upon before the end of the legislative session at the end of July. “We’re making an impact that the Cape and Islands are different. The situation is far worse than in other parts of the state,” O’Connell said. While the transfer fee legislation has gotten support from Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and legislators across the state, time may run out before it passes. “So I think we need to be prepared if the statewide enabling legislation does not make it through this session; we’ve got our petitions up there after the town meetings vote and the town ballots to have the Island legislation ready to go. That’s what the goal is,” he said.

O’Connell is hopeful that a majority of Islanders understand the need. “I think we have momentum. The endorsements and the range of interests represented by those endorsements from conservation to the Wampanoag tribe, to the local officials in the towns, is very strong. I am most impressed by the real estate brokers and industry on the Island — almost 50 of them have endorsed the legislation. They understand the issue. They have really carved out a separate position than the state real estate organization. That’s a strong endorsement,” O’Connell said. “What concerns me as we get into town meetings is misinformation at the meetings, red herring–type issues raised, such as, It’s going to cause poor people to move to the Island. That’s not the case. You need to have a job on the Island to qualify for the benefits of this initiative. But that misinformation at public meetings is a phenomenon I’ve seen throughout my public service, and it can change the dynamics.”

O’Connell will be at the West Tisbury town meeting when it takes up the housing bank article on Tuesday, April 12. “I’m ready to respond if I can provide any helpful information. I am cognizant of the fact that I’m a new guy,” he said. “If I can provide any assistance, I will do so, but there are far better, long-term West Tisbury residents who can respond to questions and assure their neighbors that this is a very positive step forward, with minimal possible effects that could be considered in any way negative. It’s such a positive step for the Island and community and environmental health of the Island. I’m hoping it passes in all six towns.”

23 COMMENTS

  1. We are so lucky to have Dan O’Connell on this island. Thank you Dan and the MV Times for making it clear — This legislation is community vetted. We need and deserve a Housing Bank. Now is the time. Let’s do this, Martha’s Vineyard!! https://www.ccmvhb.org/

  2. Dan,

    Your messge has been said over and over again. Misinformation abounds and the CCMVHB has addressed and responded to almost all of the issues raised. All it takes if for someone to go to the website CCMVHB.org, a very user friendly location, and take the time to be totally familiar with the facts. If there are still remaining questions, place a call to the number listed. Don’t make an assumption; take the time to review the material and make sure your decision is based on facts.

  3. “We have a housing crisis.” That’s about as obvious a statement as saying the sun rises in the morning. How many years has this been going on? Has anyone ever heard of Sisyphus? Here’s a novel idea. Why not relax some, not all, of the requirements for landowners to be able to put tiny homes, RV’s, campers or other structures for workers or their families to be able to live and work for the 6 months that is really needed and critical to all businesses? Use it as a relieve valve until whatever powers to be decide to really act and not just blow smoke.

  4. I know several excellent teachers who have to leave because there is no stabile housing for them. I know that our hospital is understaffed due to the lack of affordable housing. Having a significant ongoing source of revenue to address the scarcity and soaring costs of livable housing is essential to strong, healthy and diverse community. Go vote in favor of the housing bank at the town meetings and on the ballot election in the days following.

    • Albert, so true. I think a fast commuter ferry from WH (note: Nantucket has a fast ferry) would serve all island stakeholders. The Housing Bank and its advocates should use all their available tools to help decrease demand for housing and help solve the island affordability crisis. It is well known that our neighbors, relatives, friends, bosses, etc. are charging hefty sums for monthly rent. Support smart action. Support a WH fast ferry.

      • Does WH want a fast ferry?
        Does WH have a housing crisis?
        Does WH want to be a parking lot for the Island.
        The Island’s housing problems should be dealt with on Island, not exported to the mainland.

        • Yes, yes, and they already have 4. SSA won’t allow any new commuter parking at WH. Do you know that other communities are also facing an affordability crisis? Is it helpful to the island to look at what those communities are doing? Do laundry lists of questions serve a purpose? Are you solution oriented?

  5. Albert- do you/would you commute off island for work? Let’s not ask of others what we ourselves aren’t willing to do.

    • I have commuted off Island for over twenty years.
      My background is in instrumention and controls engineering.
      Wright & Wright went belly up years ago.
      Let’s not make assumptions.

  6. One sentence in this article is of concern and needs clarification. ” You need to have a job on the Island to qualify for the benefits of this initiative.” This could eliminate the Aging population so I hope it is not true.
    I support the Island Housing Bank, we are in an affordable housing crisis, and it is not going to improve in the near future.
    A collaborative effort is needed amongst all housing entities to make a change, including a change in our zoning laws.

    • Hi Jim! great point — to clarify, Dukes County Regional Housing Authority’s criteria now, in order to qualify for housing support you must either a) show proof of Island-based employment — meaning workers coming here holding a contract for an Island job, such as with the hospital, school district, municipality, Island-based business, etc. or b) show Island residency & income qualification. Dan was describing a). Our Island seniors are included in b). The Housing Bank would work with DCRHA so those criteria would remain the same. One of the goals is to support our senior population aging in place on MVY. In addition to being valued community members, according to Healthy Aging MV’s data our Island seniors contribute annual volunteer hours equivalent to 500+ full time employees, with an economic value of $28 million annually Island wide. That is not something our economy can afford to lose and still function.

      • Laura, thank you for clarifying the concern, although I wasn’t the one who asked.

        Proof of working on the island as a builder/amenites provider/landscaper/caterer for McMansions and uber the wealthy part or full time residents is also what is allowable for eligibility criteria to get loans/gifts/help from the Housing Bank. How is that not a red flag that contributes to squeezing out more educators and those working in the medical, safety, and essential home care (plumbers, electricians) fields?

        This shows the serious holes in the Housing Bank’s failure to regard eligibility requirement more stringently. In fact, as it is written, the Housing Bank encourages screened-in porch builders, kitchen and bath remodelers, and high-end landscapers to come to the Vineyard to live and raise their families– on equal footing for eligibility as nurses and teachers. This is another reason not to vote for the Housing Bank.

        Without an emphasis on what normal people consider essential jobs (health, education, safety, and necessary stores and businesses) the Housing Bank is another money grab enabling those who are contributing to the housing problems.

        Remember when Thomas Bena made a film about how bad big houses are…. after he stopped making money off building them? Come on. Builders and landscapers can commute. How about we look forward without knowing we’re doing more damage instead of looking back and regretting our part?

  7. Be careful what you wish for, Martha’s Vineyard. I keep repeating myself.

    Do we really need another bureaucracy that starts out with the best intentions and ends up like the Land Bank? Did you see that the six-figure salaried James Lengyel wants to build new office space on the newly purchased $9.5 million gorgeous farm property because the Upper Main Street, Edgartown office isn’t good enough, even after admitting that 80%, soon to be 100% of all Land Bank transactions are done online? Do we really need another cult to think that greed and self-interest and self-importance are okay? How many of us forked over 2% of our home purchase price so that James Lengyel can sit in spiffy new offices on a farm and so that fence builders and trail cutters and sign makers can be housed while nurses, EMTs and teachers have to move away?

    I see nothing in the AH literature that eliminates the glut of trades people, boot camp teachers, and jewelry, fabric, and clay artisans from this housing eligibility. These are the hard choices about who exactly is essential to the lifeblood of Martha’s Vineyard. Until the island gets real about exactly what drives the island infrastructure and who we actually cater to, (people wanting new kitchens, hand-made porcelain dishes, fancy stone wall landscaping, and $250 pocketbooks and $500 bracelets, we’re stuck in sticking it to the wealthy (wealthier than anyone who can’t afford a million dollar home) to get us out of the pickle we created by being a tourism-based island economy. It’s a form of mooching off those we love to hate–those who have expendable money to pay for stuff and services, none of which is actually essential. I remember when the island needed its hardware stores and auto dealer and fairly priced restaurants. The epitome of the mindset to have our hands in the pockets of wealthier non-full time residents is price gouging for supermarket food unless you can swear you live and work on the island and don’t have a place off-island or a trust fund. Then we’ll give you a “discount”. But we’re happy to rip you off otherwise– because we can. Oh, and will you buy us a house while we’re at it?

    What percentage of year round rentals is currently occupied by actual essential workers (cashiers at supermarkets, hospital personnel including cafeteria workers, and not yoga teachers whose classes nurses cannot afford to take 3x a week)? I love my yoga teachers, but these are fair but tough questions to ask before we jump on a well-meaning runaway train that demands the rich take care of us even though we resent and hate to need them.

    The Island has some tough choices to make about a mindset that is incapable of looking past the wealthy to solve its lack of self reliance/lack of affordable housing. Who makes money on the island and how? Who exactly benefits from hordes coming to the island for music and food festivals? Legal recreational pot? (Don’t think it’s the 2nd grade teacher).

    You’ll pardon me, but I see the AH bill as kids diving after coins tossed in the harbor as the ferry comes in.

    And (almost) finally, why the hell is the Land Bank still grabbing 2% of nearly every home purchase, paying no RE taxes on their properties, never thanking the hand that has fed (and overstuffed) them, while entitling themselves to whatever and however they want for all these years? Housing for trail cutters? Seriously? Let em commute. Yes we have some nice conserved properties opened to the public– but we also have lots more that the LB does and is that has nothing to do with its well-intentioned mission statement.

    The answers to many housing issues are staring us in the face, if only we’d all open our well-intentioned eyes. Stop welcoming non essential businesses and their families over those who actually are structurally needed. There’s no entitlement here. Grandkids are not entitled to live near Nana if they can’t afford it and offer nothing essential to the community, even if they grew up here. What seems unfair is actually LIFE. Builders of home additions are not essential when there’s a glut of builders, painters, tradespeople and landscapers. There’s lots to admire and approve of about the hard work, excellent conservation planning, and great intentions of the AH. But who gets housing? Why do they get it based on income and not essential-ness to the island infrastructure? Who decides who gets the loan or the gift and what stops favoritism? WHERE does the money to gift or loan come from and why is mooching okay? How well do the proponents understand exactly what they are reading in the bill and what the ramifications are? The usual go-to answer, tax the rich, created a monster in the Land Bank. I surely am not going to vote for another monster-in-the-making that in fact exacerbates our reliance on being a tourist, catering-to-wealthy-summer-people economy. The AH will make things worse for the island, based on the fact that history repeats itself. No more big, bureaucratic monster banks that are in fact, self-important, entitled, mooching taxers with too much money and power.

    (cue the personal attacks for noticing a popular, well-intentioned emperor has no clothes…)

    • Jackie, I hope you don’t have any personal attacks for your post! It’s clear to me that you care for this community enough to share so generously. Sometimes it can be hard to pivot after making up your mind, especially publicly, but I hope you’ll consider a few things. The authors of this legislation have learned a great deal from the Land Bank – how it works well, and how it can be improved (from Lank Bank reps themselves, town officials and the public). If you’re curious about those details, drop a message on the CCMVHB social media or the website contact! It’s a lot to say here. As for your questions about who gets prioritized or how – those are seriously awesome questions. I mean it. I have been thinking about it, too! Those are some of types of details that would be decided upon by commissioners from each town, with input from Town Advisory Board committees. Our next job as affordable housing advocates is to make sure the BEST minds are in that room, figuring it out, with the support they need. Maybe you are even one of them! Or you could contribute to the conversation. I hope others feel this way, too. One thing I can say, having worked in affordable housing for many years, is that I have read this legislation and I am confident that if passed, it will definitely help the essential workers on this island. Thanks for loving this island, and caring for working class people the way that you do.

      • Thank you, Caitlin ❤️. The reality is, as long as all the “awesome” questions have no reliable answers— and as long as the Land Bank is in a position to plan on building a new office and housing for their fence builders and sign makers (on a 9.5 million dollar farm!), I cannot consider voting in another “bank” to put their hands in other people’s pockets and to make subjective decisions with those funds that may exacerbate the affordable housing for teachers and nurses. I just can’t.

        Im glad James Lengyel openly talked about his plans for this latest LB purchase, without an ounce of gratitude to the community that paid for it or any awareness of how far astray those plans are from the LB mission statement. This audacity should show the community what can happen when good, well-intentioned ideas so very, very wrong. As far as I can tell, the LB is not unlike a cult.

        • I have not agreed with every decision made by the Land Bank, but i hate to think of what the island would be like if it did not exist— full of even more huge mansions used a few weeks a year and expensive short term rentals and with only a few places to hike on the beautiful trails and enjoy beaches that are open to all. I hope that in ten years, while we will no doubt be arguing about specific housing bank decisions, we will be so glad that there will be teachers, nurses, firefighters, and other workers who can find housing they can afford on the island they love!

          • Jane, I agree the LB has been great for the island. However, it no longer is. The proof is in all the situations where the LB no longer acts in accordance with their Mission Statement. Here is just one example of the out of control arrogance that comes with too much of our money and too much power:

            In what universe is it okay to build housing for trail cutters on a 9.5 million dollar property, paid for by people who were taxed and (mis)led to believe that the fee would go to land conservation for public use? There isn’t an ounce of awareness of what a breach of trust and faith this plan by the Land Bank is. Trail cutters over nurses? And apparently, LB cultists are willing to overlook/condone this sort of overstepping of legally approved LB goals. This scheme is, in fact, an abuse of power and a misuse of funds. I can’t figure out why there is any approval of this outrageousness, unless it’s a cult mentality. This plan was spelled out, with quotes from Lengyel, in the Gazette article. Underneath the article were comments that thought this abuse of power was great. I kid you not.

            But back to the latest “bank”– this time for housing. History repeats itself.

            Please read the Housing Bank’s eligibility requirements. See Laura Silber’s comment above. McMansion builders and all those tradespeople and artisans who service the wealthy are in competition for housing eligibility with teachers and nurses and all those you and I both wish to see have housing. Gotta read the fine print!

  8. There is no housing crisis. The problem
    Is so simple. You can’t afford to live here or can’t find a home, then simply move on. The Island does not owe anyone the right to live here. There are plenty of homes all over the USA that are affordable. If we attempted to house all that want a home here our taxes would double from an increased school and infrastructure burden. And the extra population would ruin the island for everyone. Please just move on if things are not easy for you. I surely would if I could not find housing.

  9. I was searching for accommodations for myself and wife to be able to work year round managing a hotel style property together. This is after years of summer and yr round residents working and living in MV. From sailing instructor to working in the market to building homes and additions. Anything was just out of site price wise

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