Islanders rang out a message to state legislators on Thursday: Legislation to create the Martha’s Vineyard housing bank must advance to secure the community’s future.
Activists from both Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket joined together for the Martha Goes to Beacon Hill event, organized by the Coalition to Create the MV Housing Bank, to push for legislation that would create the Martha’s Vineyard housing bank, an effort that received overwhelming support from the Island’s voters.
The day started with the 7 am ferry out of Woods Hole, and culminated with a rally at the State House steps in Boston, with speeches, chants, and drumming. Around 250 Vineyarders and roughly 60 Nantucketers, young and old, stood together.
The Vineyard housing bank — if passed by state lawmakers and signed by the governor — would be funded by a 2 percent transfer fee on the purchase of properties on the Island. 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 $200,000.
Thursday’s large turnout provided hope for some in attendance. Coalition member John Abrams said when he first came to advocate for a housing bank in 2005, there was only one bus transporting people. On Thursday, four charter buses took people from Woods Hole to Boston.
“Now, this renewed effort has got far better legs under it, a much better political situation,” he said. “It’s going to succeed this time. We are just psyched. I’ve been working on affordable housing for 40 years, and as much as we’ve done, it’s only gotten worse. In my view, this is the ultimate solution. It’s the nature of the long-term funding year after year … that will make all the difference.”
Abrams added he is excited about a provision in the legislation in which at least 75 percent of the money would go to previously developed properties. “I see it as a mechanism to buy houses, restrict them to year-round, and get them out of the short-term rental market, and thereby solve two problems at once,” he said.
The housing crisis on Martha’s Vineyard has forced many to do the “Island shuffle” and look for several housing arrangements throughout the year. Others decided to leave the Island. And a common motivation for Vineyarders attending the rally Thursday was to help friends who were housing-insecure.
Bob Laskowski, a retired physician from Oak Bluffs, said he personally knows healthcare workers who left the Island due to the housing situation. On the bus ride to Boston, he told The Times that housing insecurity is a health risk. “There is research that shows children who are housing-insecure perform less well in school,” he said. “Lack of educational achievement predicts poor health. We know people who have healthcare problems, if they’re facing housing insecurity, that takes precedence over everything else. So, their medical conditions — diabetes, heart problems, et cetera — they take a second seat.”
Martha’s Vineyard Hospital director of public relations and special projects George Brennan also said housing insecurity was a health issue. “We need to be able to recruit and retain staff at the hospital — doctors, nurses, support staff. That’s very difficult with the housing situation on the Island,” he said.
Brennan was the news editor at The Times before joining the hospital. He said housing affected staff at the newspaper as well. “We lost quite a few employees through the years because they couldn’t afford to live on the Island, and that hurts every business,” he said. “You spend a lot of time and energy training staff, working with them, and then you lose them because of housing. Not because they don’t want to work for you, but the affordability of the Island. So, this is a really important issue, and hopefully we can get that across to the legislature and get this bill passed.”
Ralliers were encouraged by the diversity of Thursday’s turnout. Martha’s Vineyard Commission housing planner Laura Silber called it an “incredible display.”
“Democracy is not a spectator sport, and this is a really important example of what can happen when ordinary community members come together and come to the State House to make their voices heard,” Silber said. “This is significant.”
Some who came out were advocating for their own situations. “I moved onto the Island in July with my boyfriend, and we were able to find housing in the winter,” Island artist Lina Racaniello said, after arriving in Boston. “We kind of can’t for the summer, so we’re sort of in a position where we’ll sleep in our cars, or we’ll quit our jobs and leave, and we both don’t want to do that because we really love our jobs here.”
Racaniello works as an administrative assistant at Sullivan and Associates, and her boyfriend is a plumber. “I filled out some of the low-income housing forms, but the income for it is very low, especially for where we’re living,” she said. “The amount of money they expect you to make per year, you can’t live on the Island with that. So it’s a little contradicting there. It’s a little frustrating.”
Island artist Bernica Wilcox, who also does marketing and social media work, moved to the Island three years ago, and is living with her boyfriend. Her boyfriend was from the Island, so they were able to live with his uncle in a studio apartment that is “literally one bedroom,” with their cat.
“There’s no opportunities to move into a bigger space on the Island that’s also affordable, where you can pay rent, go grocery shopping, and spend some money on yourself as well,” she said in Boston. “There’s literally no place to live on-Island that also provides that.”
Both women said they wanted to stay on Martha’s Vineyard for the opportunity it provides to artists, the welcoming community, and the Island’s natural beauty. However, that may not be a reality.
Rudy Sanfilippo, who owns a home on the Island and works at South Mountain Co., told The Times that a focus on condominiums and apartments was needed, because the Island simply does not have the room to give everyone single-family homes. He also said that while he supports the housing bank, it’s just one of many other issues that need to be addressed, such as changing zoning bylaws to allow for taller buildings. Additionally, he called for a balance between affordable housing and conservation. “I think this opens the door for more things down the road that could really benefit the local community,” he said.
Sanfilippo also said the legislation will be a tool to manage the housing issue. “The housing crisis will never be solved on Martha’s Vineyard or the Cape and Islands,” he said. “This isn’t a problem we’re trying to solve, this is a problem we’re trying to make less … By no means do I think this is going to all of a sudden create a bunch of housing for the people that need it. I think this is going to be a step in the right direction, [and] serve as a model for the rest of the region, the rest of the state, the rest of the country as to what can be done in communities like ours where we have multimillion-dollar homes every year, and a small sect of year-round people who just can’t afford to live anywhere.”
Arriving at the Massachusetts State House, Island activists were given time to meet with lawmakers at the Senate Chamber before a legislative session took place. That included State Senate President Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, and Cape and Islands State Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro.
“Housing is an area that is particularly important,” Spilka said, addressing how many families cannot afford to live where they work. “It’s just really a big problem for Massachusetts. It’s a problem, unfortunately, for the entire country. But it’s something that we at the Massachusetts Senate are trying to address.”
At the state capital, Islanders split into two groups to maximize their time. Some went to engage passersby about the legislation. Other groups visited legislative offices to advocate for the housing bank legislation.
But the highlight of the day was the rally at the front steps of the State House, which featured several guest speakers.
Coalition co-chair Arielle Faria emceed the event. Drums rapidly beat, activists cheered, and passing drivers supportively honked their horns. Many activists waved signs in the air reading various housing-related messages like “No Housing = No Teachers,” “Housing Now,” or simply “Home.”
Cyr said housing has been an ongoing issue for the Cape and Islands for years now, exacerbated by the pandemic putting the real estate market “on steroids.” He said the housing crisis affects everyone, from young Islanders struggling to find a home to seniors who may be looking to “downsize.”
He said the community is “truly at a crossroads,” and encouraged continued activism.
“I want the same level of energy and activism demanding that we change our zoning laws, that we reject this persistent NIMBYism, that it’s cutting off our future,” he said. “We can preserve our environment and cherish our historic preservation while building new housing, and we have to do it.”
State Rep. Dylan Fernandes, D-Falmouth, emphasized the desperation felt by many that stems from the “housing shuffle,” something he personally experienced. He underscored the damage the “ultra-wealthy” have caused to the housing supply on the Cape and Islands, like homeowners buying second or third homes, and companies acquiring properties for short-term rentals. “We see hope ahead with a housing bank,” he said.
Martha’s Vineyard representatives stepped up to the mic as well. Martha’s Vineyard Community Services CEO Elizabeth Folcarelli underscored that affordable housing is the No. 1 issue for Island workers. Dukes County Sheriff Bob Ogden said a lack of housing can negatively impact public safety. Aquinnah select board chair Juli Vanderhoop said the lack of housing has forced Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) members off their ancestral homelands.
Nantucket Chamber of Commerce executive director Peter Burke took to the mic, emphasizing how each community has different needs; Nantucket municipal housing director Tucker Holland revealed the severity of his Island’s housing situation. According to Holland, there are only 65 residential listings on the Island, and the average listing price is $6.2 million.
Many of the participants of the day were students from the Island’s schools, and it wasn’t just a day off from classes. Some Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School students told The Times they joined the trek to support their community.
“I want to help,” Ethan Knight said. “I have some friends who are having trouble finding housing, and I’m just trying to do what I can.”
March Anderson-Brookes said her mother is “really involved” in the housing bank efforts, and her father works for Island Housing Trust. “This is a big part of my life,” March said.
Jasper Grow was glad to see students from schools outside of the Charter School also joining the event.
At Boston, students were some of the most energetic among the advocates. Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools Superintendent Richie Smith said he felt pride in seeing student participants. “When you see our students grow, and they get their voice — we heard their voice — I feel, job well done to parents, job well done to staff, and really job well done to students,” he said.
One student who made her voice heard during the rally was Graysen Kirk, a senior at Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School and a last-minute guest speaker. She highlighted the fact that the community is denied the housing it needs, while mansions go uninhabited most of the year. She pointed out that workers who keep the Island running are being pushed out. “This is not to say that this is all that we are here for,” she said. “We are not just servants of the wealthy. We are what makes the Islands resilient and beautiful. Get rid of the community, and you don’t have [the] islands. This is our home, and we deserve to live here.”
After the rally, participants got back on the charter buses and returned home.