Chilmark is considering setting aside $200,000 annually to help ease the lack of housing on the Island.
On its face, it’s a terribly inadequate amount of money. It’ll take several years of providing $200,000 to be able to afford just one house on the current market, and won’t do much to help the problem. For a town where affordable housing is likely lacking more than anywhere else on the Island, one house will be a gnat in a storm.
But while inadequate, the intention is there, and it represents a solid, good faith move in the right direction. In a wider picture, the proposal has potential.
Consider that the funding is proposed to come from the town’s local-option rooms tax, which includes funding from any short-term rentals in Chilmark. That’s Airbnbs, Vrbos, and other online rental sites. Chilmark has received about a half a million dollars annually since the tax went into effect.
But it could be more money, and the town is considering action to make it more. Chilmark currently charges 4 percent on these rentals, and maybe more importantly than $200,000, town officials are considering upping that tax to the highest allowed by the state: 6 percent. That would likely up the yearly rooms-tax allotment to $700,000. Chilmark would be joining most of the other towns on the Island by increasing the fee to the highest margin.
In the bigger picture, if all Island towns were to set aside a portion of short-term-rental taxes to help solve the housing crisis, the amount would represent a real number.
Last year, all six Island towns collected $8.6 million through the local-option rooms tax. Edgartown raised by far the most money with $3.8 million, and Edgartown is only charging 4 percent of the short-term rental tax. Increase that to 6 percent — which town officials are considering — and the Island is looking at somewhere near $11 million or $12 million a year. That might not be enough to solve the housing crisis, but it’s not insignificant. Regionalization is a somewhat dirty word on the Island, but an Island-wide effort to find places for residents and workers to live makes sense.
So what can be done if that funding does go toward housing? Chilmark officials behind the most recent recommendation to allocate the $200,000 admit there’s only so much. There’s consideration to subsidize rent or a mortgage payment for Chilmark families. Funding could also go toward the construction of Peaked Hills Pastures, a 14-unit housing development the town has struggled to get off the ground. And hopefully there will be other affordable housing developments in the future.
Looking at neighboring communities to see what they are doing can offer some help for the Vineyard. Nantucket recently pledged some $70 million to help house families and workers. At the most recent town meeting, voters allocated another $6.5 million to the cause, and that will arrive as an annual amount. Nantucket has realized it has a significant housing issue — 1 in 10 town staff positions are vacant — and is making real decisions.
As for what Nantucket is doing to find homes for residents, the town plans to buy homes when they become available on the market, to be sold or rented below market rate to local families; the town is working on building a 22-unit housing development, which will go to low-income residents; middle-income families who, unsurprisingly, can’t afford a home where the median home price is more than $3 million; and some units will likely be set aside for municipal workers.
In Provincetown, another seasonal community with a housing problem, voters have used money from the room occupancy tax to put directly toward building housing; voters recently approved turning a defunct firehouse into town employee housing. There are things that can be done, and done now.
Since Vineyard towns started collecting funding from Airbnbs and other online rentals, the funding has gone straight into general funds. Chilmark isn’t the only town considering putting that funding to housing. Edgartown and Aquinnah could be voting on similar articles during the spring town meeting season. And while we hope that Chilmark eventually increases the annual funds allocated to solving the housing issue, starting with $200,000 is just that: a start.
The intention of the short-term rental tax is to help ease some of the impacts that the short-term rental market is having on local communities. It’s hard to know just how much of an impact Airbnvs and Vrbos have had on Martha’s Vineyard, but it’s safe to say that it’s significant. A tax on the industry should be used to house Islanders.