A tool for housing municipal employees

State and Island officials are working on an amendment to state law that they say will help prevent towns from losing needed municipal workers.

State Sen. Julian Cyr, left, speaking at the Martha Goes to Beacon Hill event, a rally in support of housing bank legislation, earlier this year. —Eunki Seonwoo

Dukes County Sheriff Robert Ogden says that his staffing levels at the Island’s only jail are getting near critical levels. Some guards are working 12-hour shifts to make up for the shortage; administrators are having to pull shifts in the jailhouse, and he worries about the number of staffers he has for the Island’s communication center.

“We are bare-bones,” Ogden said in a recent interview.

As a result, the sheriff says, they’ve had to cut back on providing assistance to Island police forces on things like tactical response while they focus on their primary job at the jailhouse.

“A lot of the services we provide are in jeopardy,” Ogden said. “We have to think about what is the most important public safety we provide.” 

It isn’t just the county jail with municipal staffing issues. In Edgartown, there are some holes in town departments. Town administrator James Hagerty says it isn’t enough to impact services to the community. Not yet, at least. But he’s short-staffed in the highway department, police department, library, and the water and wastewater department.

“I’m not worried about a lack of services at this point,” Hagerty said. “In the future, TBD.”

This concern about the future and a lack of municipal employees has prompted Edgartown to look at purchasing the former Land Bank headquarters on Main Street. Funding for the purchase will likely go to town meeting in the spring.

But housing municipal employees through a town building has its difficulties. Some revenue streams have strings attached that restrict who can live in publicly funded houses.

Towns on the Island have relied on Community Preservation Act (CPA) funding for housing. That’s a local option tax that funds housing, recreation, open space, and historic preservation. If CPA funding is used to develop housing, the rooms and units will be reserved for residents making 100 percent or less of the area median income. 

But anyone making over 100 percent of the median income would be excluded. That includes many municipal employees across town departments, including public safety, health agents, and planning officials, to name a few.

But publicly funded housing has its difficulties when it comes to housing municipal workers. Towns need to apply in order to give preference to who lives in the houses. Local developments can apply to the state to give preference to 70 percent of the units. And that preference goes to residents of the town, out-of-town residents who have children who attend school in the district, or who work in said town. Municipal employees are just one part of that equation.

There are instances where towns can apply to the Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities for special preference. In a 22-unit project under development on Nantucket, that town is asking special permission from the department for just two of those units to be reserved for municipal workers. Tucker Holland, municipal housing director on Nantucket, says they have no certainties that they will receive the designation.

As an example of the housing struggles on Nantucket, earlier this summer the town advertised the chief of police position. WIthout housing, they received 10 applications; with housing, they received 40, town officials reported.

It’s somewhat of a policy logjam when a town is struggling to find staff for municipal services and is restricted by the state’s fair housing laws.

But there is an effort underway that could give towns the ability to provide housing to municipal workers while using public funding. State Senator Julian Cyr is working on legislation that would give towns the option. 

Cyr described it as a more technical solution, compared with some of the more attention-grabbing housing solutions. While much of the attention on the state level has been on the real estate transfer fee, and the creation of a housing bank for the Vineyard, there are other, more routine and procedural items that offer some relief to Islanders as well. 

One is ensuring that towns can provide housing to municipal employees. “We’re trying to find a way to give towns an option,” Cyr said. 

The municipal housing idea is part of a larger bill that the local state senator filed three years ago and filed again in the most recent legislative session. The bill — called An Act Relative to Attainable Housing in Seasonal Communities — intends to help not just the Cape and Islands, but other resort communities, like the Berkshires. 

There are several pieces to the legislation that Cyr says will bolster housing efforts in these communities. As with cities that are especially designated as gateway communities, this would give resort communities a special designation as well. The designation would allow cities and towns to pursue things like establishing a property tax exemption for residents whose income is less than the area median income, or creating a city task force to investigate ways to limit permitting and zoning that might discourage creation of affordable housing.

Providing a preference for municipal workers is just one part of that bill. 

“We are reaching a point where public safety, health, and the most rudimentary services are in jeopardy because we can’t find the workforce we need, because of housing,” Cyr said, of the Cape and Islands.

He said that Gov. Maura Healy has been receptive to helping municipalities provide housing. During her visit to the Vineyard earlier this summer, the governor held a roundtable to discuss housing.

In mid-September, State House News Service reported that Housing Secretary Ed Augustus has hinted at some policies that may be included in a bond bill that could pass at the end of the month or early October.

Island housing officials see the need for the legislation as well. Laura Silber, Island housing planner with the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, says the Cyr bill is a starting point that will help towns hire employees who provide essential services.

“We are losing municipal workers, which is threatening the collapse of infrastructure,” Silber said. “Municipalities can’t compete with private employers, who can provide housing for their employees.”

Silber sees legislation that would provide town employees with housing as a way of leveling the playing field. 

There is some precedent for municipalities providing housing for their town employees. Nantucket received special state permission to provide staff housing to operate the Island’s wastewater treatment plant. The town was having difficulty staffing positions to operate the facility, which requires around-the-clock care. Nantucket built a house on town property that provided four rooms; with the special state approval, all four rooms can go to wastewater employees. But that required special legislative permission, which can take a while.

Nantucket has also worked with a private nonprofit to build housing for schoolteachers and staff.

Holland, Nantucket’s housing director, is a strong supporter of providing better options for municipalities to house employees, and he points to the seasonal communities bill as a step in the right direction. 

He says that Nantucket has approximately 40 open positions, which he said is roughly 10 percent of all town positions.

“The ability to provide housing to the folks teaching our kids and running our DPW and all of the different services we rely on daily here, it’s a very real problem,” Holland said.

The most striking example of municipal staffing struggles came during a large fire last summer at the Veranda House, a historic inn downtown. Because it’s difficult to find housing, many of Nantucket’s firefighters live off-island and commute. The Veranda House fire required a full-force response. There was a fear that the fire could have jumped to other homes in the downtown area. Holland says that the island was lucky that some firefighters, not with the Nantucket department, just happened to be on the island at the time.

“[The department] got some relief from firemen who happened to be visiting Nantucket, who jumped into action,” Holland said. “That is not a sustainable strategy.”