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:
- Demonstrate a commitment to the creation and preservation of affordable housing production prior to enactment of a transfer fee.
- 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.
- 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.
- Municipalities with a population of 2,500 residents or more shall designate a minimum of 5 percent of the residential zoned area as multifamily.
- Limit 0.5 acre or greater single-family residential zoning to not more than half of a residential zoned area.
- Enact an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) bylaw that is compliant with the definition of accessory dwelling unit in accordance with state general laws.
- 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.”