More than 200 Vineyarders — with fellow Islanders from Nantucket — assembled at the State House last month, demanding the passage of legislation that would help the development of workforce and affordable housing across the Island.
It was an inspiring moment, a sign that Vineyarders are concerned about their future. Put so eloquently and forcefully by Martha’s Vineyard Charter School senior Graysen Kirk: The means of survival for the Island’s backbone is diminishing.
The key, now, is to keep the momentum going.
At the State House rally, Islanders were pushing for the passage of a real estate transfer fee that would collect revenue on real estate deals over a million dollars. It’s impossible to know if state lawmakers will get it done, but cities like Boston and Somerville have shown support for a transfer fee, which gives the Island’s efforts hope; also, Gov. Maura Healey has publicly said she would support a real estate transfer fee, unlike her predecessor. Still, some key lawmakers, like Massachusetts Senate President Karen Spilka, have not publicly supported the fee. And the real estate lobby has spiked past efforts effectively.
But what we do know: There is a thirst for change on the Island.
While the Massachusetts legislature isn’t known for expediency, the energy from the March rally can go to other places in the meantime. One place to look is the short-term rental market. Our reporting shows that just in the past two years, towns have collected nearly $16 million in total, just from a small tax on AirBnBs, VRBOs, and other short-term rentals.
That’s a lot of money, but it could be more. Some Island towns are only taxing the market at 4 percent, instead of the state maximum of 6 percent. And judging by the pace of corporate purchases and AirBnb recruitment, the taxes don’t seem to be a deterrent.
Right now, there’s no clear direction for where the revenue is actually going. It could and should be collected in an account set aside specifically for developing housing — whether for individual towns or Island-wide. That would set up a steady source of revenue, and what better way to raise money than through an industry that’s had a huge impact on the housing shortage?
There are other revenue streams to consider as well. In Aquinnah, the town has put an article on its upcoming town meeting warrant that would designate 100 percent of the town’s room occupancy tax revenue to go to the affordable housing committee — the first and only article of its kind on the Island. That not be a substantial amount of funding for Aquinnah, but for larger towns, that would be a significant amount of money.
There are also zoning changes to think about, like exploring areas of each town that could accommodate denser development and taller buildings for apartments. The creation of more flexible accessory dwelling unit bylaws could make it easier to build an apartment; some towns in the state have set up programs that help families with the upfront costs of building an ADU. We are disheartened to know that West Tisbury tried getting something similar before voters at this town meeting, but it never made it to the warrant.
As this town meeting season comes around — Oak Bluffs, West Tisbury, and Edgartown meetings are planned for next week — it’s disappointing to see the lack of articles that address housing.
Edgartown, for example, has $34 million in capital expenses up for debate, and nearly 100 articles. But there’s only minimal consideration for housing. The Edgartown capital expenditures — a new fire station, waterfront improvements, wastewater — will maintain a level of services that residents have come to expect, maybe even make them much better. That’s great. But the message at the State House rally is that the level of service is diminishing for many because they can’t afford a home here.
Not to pick on Edgartown. Oak Bluffs and West Tisbury have town meetings next week, and in contrast with other spending measures, the effort on housing is minimal.
We also reported this week a sobering image that could be considered a crystal ball for the Vineyard’s future. The mean home sale on Nantucket is upwards of $4 million.
But where Vineyard towns have been slow, Nantucket is taking action. Last year that island allocated $40 million toward year-round housing initiatives; this year, town meeting is being asked for another $6.5 million.
Historically, the handlers and architects of town meeting warrants can be conservative. It’s important to keep a good bond rating, and maintain schools and other municipal buildings. Of course.
But we’ll leave you with this: What if more than 200 Islanders — tired of the now famous “Island shuffle” — mobilized on town meeting floors across the Island, making demands for housing? It might not get a home for everyone who needs one, but it certainly would help.
“judging by the pace of corporate purchases”. Please report the facts if you have them. What is the percentage of properties being sold to corporations whose sole purpose is to do short term rentals? Just because it’s a LLC does not support your contention. Many families are LLC’s. Any large corporation who thinks they can buy properties on the island and turn them into profitable short term rentals hasn’t done their homework. The ROI is much better in other vacation markets with longer seasons.
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