Town meeting warrants short on affordable housing initiatives

Island officials say that more could be done on town meeting floors to help alleviate the housing crisis.

All six towns voted in favor of creating a housing bank at town meetings last year.

With annual town meetings around the corner, few Island towns will be presenting their voters with warrant articles proposing notable measures to combat the ubiquitous housing crisis on Martha’s Vineyard. 

Voters in all six towns will take up warrant articles allocating varied funds to the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority’s rental assistance program, Harbor Homes, and the Island Autism Center and Neighborhood. 

They’ll also be voting on contributing to the PALS program, which provides interest-free loans to support residential upgrades, code issues, and structural work for income-qualified residents. But many of these are annual programs approved in prior years.

In Edgartown, other than state-required allotments to the Community Preservation affordable housing reserve fund and a handful of regional projects — to which all towns contribute — voters will not be taking up any warrant articles geared toward affordable housing.

Similarly, Chilmark’s warrant includes only the state-required allocation of $55,784 to the Community Preservation reserve for community housing, with the exception of $150,000 for funding planning, designing, and constructing affordable housing at Peaked Hill Pastures, which had been approved at last year’s town meeting. 

In West Tisbury, an article proposed by the affordable housing committee regarding a pilot program that would incentivize homeowners to build affordable accessory dwelling units (ADUs) on their property was rejected by the select board and will not be considered at town meeting. 

The Oak Bluffs town meeting warrant will include an article asking to appropriate $100,000 from the town’s free cash to the replenishment of the municipal housing trust, which, according to the warrant language, has been depleted after supporting recent housing projects, including the Southern Tier development. 

“With no present funding source, the [Oak Bluffs municipal housing] trust is unable to support additional projects to reach the state’s 10 percent affordable housing goal,” the town meeting warrant states. “Replenishing the trust would allow for the funding of future projects and programs presented to the housing trust.”

Some towns have made progress introducing new initiatives. Tisbury voters will take up special town meeting warrant articles that, if approved, would restrict both timeshares and fractional ownership, and amend the town’s zoning bylaw to accommodate ADUs. The goal is to maintain local, year-round housing stock. 

Tisbury is also asking to appropriate a total of $450,000 for the construction of two deed-restricted dwellings, both affordable housing projects by the Island Housing Trust. 

Aquinnah will be the first to present voters with the option of increasing the town’s room-occupancy tax rate, which will charge renters an extra 2 percent on short-term rentals. 

If approved, Aquinnah would become the fourth town to collect the maximum allowed — 6 percent — and potentially the first to use that revenue specifically toward affordable housing. 

Still, the Island’s current initiatives are diminutive compared with that of nearby communities. 

The Vineyard’s sister Island, Nantucket — whose average home sales are now upwards of $4 million, offering a daunting glimpse of what the Vineyard could soon be facing regarding affordable housing — has earmarked tens of millions of dollars for affordable housing initiatives in the past few years. 

This year, Nantucket voters will be taking up a warrant article at their upcoming annual town meeting proposing a permanent tax override of $6.5 million to aid in the creation and preservation of affordable housing. 

Similarly, in Provincetown, voters will consider a handful of town-sponsored housing-related articles, ranging from construction of new housing to a deed-restriction program with the aim of promoting year-round housing occupancy.  

While facing similar challenges of how to manage the lack of affordable, year-round housing, Martha’s Vineyard towns have yet to agree upon or authorize substantial funding that could pave the way for sizable and long-lasting solutions. 

“There’s a lot more that we can be doing,” the Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s Island housing planner, Laura Silber, told The Times this week. “It’s very important to look at Nantucket and Provincetown and the aggressive steps they are taking to tackle this issue.”

At town meetings last year, all six towns voted overwhelmingly in favor of establishing a housing bank; but as that bill to establish the Martha’s Vineyard housing bank moves through the State house, another, less discussed, bill is also waiting for codification.

Passing legislation to enact the local option transfer fee, the mechanism that would fund the housing bank through a 2 percent fee on real estate transfers over $1 million, is crucial for ensuring the housing bank’s success.

One of a handful of bills pertaining to a local option transfer fee is a bill sponsored by State. Sen Julian Cyr (D-Truro), filed earlier this year, that would give towns the ability to collect those transfer fees, which could then be utilized for creating and preserving local housing. 

That bill would require Island towns to comply with four of seven provisions:


  1. Demonstrate a commitment to the creation and preservation of affordable housing production prior to enactment of a transfer fee.
  2. Allocate an average of 50 percent of Community Preservation Act funds to housing creation and preservation in the two years prior to enactment. To be eligible for this provision, a city, town, or regional affordable housing commission must levy a 3 percent surcharge on property taxes dedicated to Community Preservation Act funds.
  3. Dedicate at least 50 percent of all room-occupancy tax receipts collected from a local room occupancy tax to wastewater, housing, or municipal infrastructure projects that advance affordable housing development.
  4. Municipalities with a population of 2,500 residents or more shall designate a minimum of 5 percent of the residential zoned area as multifamily. 
  5. Limit 0.5 acre or greater single-family residential zoning to not more than half of a residential zoned area.
  6. Enact an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) bylaw that is compliant with the definition of accessory dwelling unit in accordance with state general laws.
  7. Enact an approved smart growth zoning district. 


Despite town hesitance to fully commit to these provisions, considering town warrants this year, a group of representatives from all six town’s affordable housing committees and planning boards have been working behind the scenes to craft preliminary policies and programs that could expedite housing initiatives and make use of untapped municipal income. 

Since the short-term rental tax bill was codified in 2018 and went into effect in 2019 — with reporting beginning in 2020 — Martha’s Vineyard towns have accumulated $15.87 million, according to the Department of Revenue, from the state-mandated 5.7 percent lodging fee on top of enforcing municipal fees, which range from 4 to 6 percent on short-term rentals (STR). 

Since the beginning of the STR tax collections, Edgartown, Chilmark, and Aquinnah have opted to charge 4 percent for rentals on top of state tax, while Tisbury, West Tisbury, and Oak Bluffs require a 6 percent fee. 

Those funds enter each town’s general fund, and have yet to be earmarked for any particular use. If a town were to decide to designate the funds, they’d likely need approval from voters for the creation of a stabilization fund first.

Through the collaboration of some Island housing committee and planning board members, talks of finally using those tax collections to fund affordable housing initiatives are gaining momentum. 

Some of those proposals include allocating short-term tax collections toward generating affordable housing units, increasing the percentage of tax placed on short-term rentals to the maximum amount, crafting policies on fractional ownerships, and creating ADU programs. 

Silber said the Martha’s Vineyard Commission will soon be launching an Islandwide housing action task force — to be modeled after the commission’s climate action task force — which will bring together stakeholders from all Island governments, including towns’ affordable housing committees and planning boards. Those groups have already begun meeting together with commission staff to coordinate efforts. 

Just like the threat of climate change and sea level rise, Silber said, housing is an issue that transcends town lines, which requires Islandwide unification to address in a comprehensive way. 

“Housing is an infrastructure issue,” Silber said. “Until we start devoting the same kind of town resources to housing that we’re devoting to maintaining roads and wastewater infrastructure, we won’t get in front of this problem.” 


  1. Fantastic, important writing, that hopefully will serve as a blueprint moving forward for the island to finally act.

  2. You can sense the real urgency in these words because that urgency blatantly exists. It exists at every corner you turn – at the dry cleaners, at the coffee shop. It’s every desperately written letter that hangs in front of the cashier when you go to grab food at Moes, at the Little House … Everything written here is true, it’s incredible that more progressive initiatives focused on alleviating the housing crisis are being presented forward at the town hearing but there is so much more that can and needs to be done. Just as Laura Silber noted, looking to what our neighbors in Nantucket and Provincetown are experiencing and how they are addressing the same issues that are written out for the Island is critical. Let’s keep the momentum going!

  3. Thanks for this good reporting. The Housing Bank is essential to our long-term future, but we can’t expect it to do all that we need. We need to show the legislature (and ourselves) how great our need is by stepping up to apply the accumulating short term rental fees to serve their best purpose: funding community housing initiatives. Yes, there’s little on the town meeting warrants, but it’s not too early to make sure there’s plenty next year – by doing the effective planning and organizing. The proposed WT ADU by-law is a great example: the Selectboard wisely chose to keep it off the warrant because it was half-baked. We need fully baked solutions that voters can stand behind, and I applaud the MVC for activating the housing task force to provide exactly that.

    • John, It makes me sad to hear you speak negatively about the proposed ADU article the WTAHC put so much effort into proposing. The time for these conversations is now. The Committee is in a transitional state, and some new ideas are taking root in fertile ground. I believe that West Tisbury is ready to talk about the most pressing issues we are facing. The Housing Bank will be a tremendous Boon but it still has hurdles ahead. Creative, grass roots initiatives at the Town level which propose to utilize funds accrued from the “problem” of STR’s, as a means to a piece of the solution, would be trending in the right direction. Hopefully there is another way to skin this cat and get the conversation in front of the voters one way or the other before yet another year goes by and countless more members of our community are forced off island, for lack of available housing. Insulting people who are trying hard to work within the confines of a system not designed to move quickly is counterproductive. I myself would prefer that you bring your wealth of experience and knowledge to the table and help us find solutions.

    • Why was it half baked? There wasn’t any more information about it in the article I read in the Gazette except that the selectmen thought it needed more work, but it was unclear why. As someone who just spent money building an affordable dwelling unit in West Tisbury, I was excited about the idea of incentives for future ADU builds (because it’s not cheap). I feel left in the dark about why this by-law won’t be on the town warrant.

      • Katie, I’m glad you asked. John has apologized for his choice of words which I really appreciate. Let’s go with “not quite ready” for Town Floor and then get down to the work of getting it ready. Stay tuned for upcoming community forums this spring and summer on this issue, among others. My hope for WT is to have another Town meeting in the Fall to which our community can bring some “fresh from the oven” articles of relevance to the Floor.

  4. Nice misleading headline when your first few paragraphs mention hundreds of thousands of dollars being spent to help with the housing crisis on the island. Which is done on an annual basis, and somehow you seem to think that doesn’t count as much. Hopefully, Edgartown will be breaking Ground soon on a quite large affordable housing project near downtown. Edgartown has also approved a new hospital/housing project, maybe you missed these achievements.

  5. Affordable housing is the single most pressing need on our island. We need a Housing Bank so we’re not worried about finding funding sources!

    • That’s a large assumption that a HB tax will be sufficient to fund endless affordable housing

    • We do not need a housing bank and new taxes which is always the first choice for many people. Take money away from someone to give to others. The island is handling it at the pace the island can handle. We do not need artificial measures to the issue as that brings its own set of problems. If you think traffic is bad now if you think school spending is high now if you believe town budgets are getting so high that seniors can not afford to pay there taxes just wait and see what your housing bank will do to the island. School enrollment is up so there must be young families here able to make it work with out your forced new tax bill.

      • This is pulled directly from the NIMBY playbook. A combination of fear mongering and poorly constructed poor-baiting. You’re worried that traffic is bad? Support public transport. You’re worried that school spending is high? Support more housing. You’re worried that seniors can’t afford to live here? Allow people to develop land here that allow them to put down roots and thus subsidize the towns elderly residents tax bills instead of the other way around.

        School enrollment is up, but very few of those new families are invested in our communities. Through no fault of their own, the system is set up against them. We can change that. You can help.

    • Oh I get. In order to make housing more affordable we need to increase the cost by 2%. That’s a brilliant philosophy.

      • John– i think it was you a while ago that stated that if this was passed the average working class person would have to pay an additional $26 k for a house. i think I shredded that argument. Perhaps it wasn’t you. But some conservative certainly did..
        But here you are, agin.
        So let me put it in a better way for you to understand–
        Barack Obama and John Kerry recently bought houses on the Vineyard.
        They paid a combined $21.5 million for these properties. Had this “tax” been in effect, they would, after the million dollar deductions have contributed $395,000 to affordable housing.
        Yup– all that money going out of their rich pockets into the houses of working class patriots.
        I know—in your world it’s “socialism” and “communism”.But think about it– how can you not love the idea that wealthy liberals ( especially these 2 ) are paying for the houses of hard working middle class patriots ?

  6. The housing bank was never designed to grow the population of the island. In fact it’s needed to maintain a thriving working community. Each town can be a catalyst toward the goal of providing an adequate amount housing that will allow younger generations to work and raise their families right here on the Vineyard.

  7. Again excellent reporting by the preeminent newspaper on the island! Many of us who support affordable housing needed this summary of what is, and is not, being done to remedy this existential crisis on the island. Thank you!!

  8. $2 fee on every non-island preferred ferry ticket car reservation.
    Easy money if it’s legal.

  9. Amy: You are absolutely right and I apologize for my poor choice of words. We need ADU by-laws and programs in each town; I support you and the WT Affordable Housing Committee for working toward that important goal. I hope you’ll keep working on it and bring a well-designed program with all details fleshed out to a future town meeting.

    • John–An apology here is a very rare occurrence. I know you are are a highly respected member of this community. I hope that your willingness to apologize can help others overcome whatever issues they may have with that concept.
      Thank you–
      As they say in Jamaica –Respect.

  10. Julian’s provisions, along with what’s happening in Nantucket and Provincetown are a great blueprint for each town’s affordable housing committee, planning board and select board to consider. Not all solutions will work in all places, but it’s time to study what’s out there and move on things that fit. I look forward to working with the Island wide housing task force to move forward together. Laura will be a terrific guide. MVTimes, thank you for keeping this conversation in front of all of us.

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