Pandemic turned Martha’s Vineyard housing crisis into crisis

From Boston to Cape Cod, house prices have skyrocketed, but on the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket it’s even worse.

On the vineyard, the year round population has been increasing for years – and housing prices with it. But in the spring of 2020, that slow flow of newcomers turned into a flood as people moved there to escape the pandemic – and there were consequences.

“The housing crisis we are facing and continue to face, which is now escalating due to COVID and rising property values, has reached critical mass,” says Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, president of the Wampanoag tribe, whose ancestral lands are in the town of Aquinnah at the western end of the island.

Aquinnah’s year-round population has grown by over 40% over the past decade, and the island’s other five towns have also seen double-digit growth. According to the 2020 census, more than 20,000 people now inhabit Vineyard (representing an increase of about 24% of the population over the past decade).

Martha’s Vineyard’s median home price last year also surpassed $ 1 million for the first time.

Andrews-Maltais and others say some people have slept in their cars, camped out in friends’ gardens, the state forest – anywhere they can find a place to spend the night.

“Look in the newspapers and in real estate. There are no year-round housing. Only a few cities have maybe a unit and it is a weekly or monthly rental,” he said. she declared. “So our tribal members are forced to leave the island, and not just our tribal members – families who have lived on the island their entire lives, for generations. We are not even able to hire people to fill the jobs necessary to deliver our programs and services because there is simply no place for them to live.

One of the people leaving is Noavakay Knight. She has lived on the island her entire life, raised with four siblings by a single mother in Vineyard Haven.

“This system looks a bit like a golden cage these days. We can’t really, you know, earn enough to do anything other than work.

Knight Noavakay

Knight and her husband, a painting contractor, once hoped to buy their own property on the vineyard, but those hopes died in 2020.

“I’ve seen some people who are able to survive and make it work here, but mostly only people who have generational wealth,” Knight said. “And you know, before, maybe we could still dream of being able to afford a teardown for $ 400,000, but now a teardown costs $ 900,000.”

The Knights and their toddler live rent-free on a Manhattan family’s summer estate in exchange for managing the property. Knight acknowledges that they were lucky in a good situation, but says depending on the goodwill of others is not a long-term housing solution.

“This system, it looks like a golden cage these days,” she said. “We can’t really, you know, do enough to do anything other than work.”

Now they’ve put money on a house in western Massachusetts, where the cost of living is much lower. Knight will be the last of his siblings to leave the island.

And as people leave the island, the social fabric is unraveling, according to longtime resident Laura Silber, who built her home in the town of West Tisbury 23 years ago.

“When the median price of a home exceeds a million dollars, things change permanently,” she said. “And you know, it’s heartbreaking – and it’s the end of an era.”

Silber was drawn to the island in the early 1990s by a thriving art scene and a lifestyle rooted in community and caring.

“We had this really thriving and vibrant arts community,” she said. “Young people would come here and you could really live here in a very reasonable way; it was just wonderful. “

And it’s not just artists and bohemians who are struggling to make ends meet on the Vineyard. Silber and others say teachers, healthcare workers and other professionals now routinely turn down offers of work there because they can’t find a place to live. Wait times are now running for months for essential services: plumbers, auto mechanics, veterinarians. There is a problem keeping the fire stations staffed.

Fire Chief Alex Schaeffer stands outside newly built dormitories in the Edgartown Fire Hall, built so firefighters who come from out of town or the island can have a place to sleep during their shifts of work. (Wilder Fleming / WBUR)

Alex Schaeffer is the chief of the Edgartown Fire Department, which, like others on the island, operates primarily with “on-call” firefighters – volunteers who receive an allowance for their service.

Shaeffer says there have always been ups and downs in staffing, but never like this.

“Until last year, that wasn’t even a consideration in terms of ‘Oh, we have members who live in town and we can take them out when we need them, in times of crisis,’ said Schaeffer. ”But now we’re fortunate to have people living on the vineyard, not to mention our own community.

When four of Edgartown’s volunteer firefighters moved earlier this year, Schaeffer had to wall up dormitories in the common area of ​​the fire hall – so those same volunteers had a place to sleep when they returned home for their shifts. of work.

Arielle Faria, administrator of the Edgartown Affordable Housing Committee, notes that daily commutes are unrealistic for most people.

“It’s an island! We don’t go to the suburbs,” she said. “There won’t be any police officers, nurses and teachers… and your gas station workers. [sustain a community] without housing people?

Faria, who moved to Vineyard from Cambridge over a decade ago, is an affordable housing benefactor herself. She lives with her husband and two teenage sons in Scott’s Grove, a nine-unit community in West Tisbury, built in 2018 by the non-profit Island Housing Trust. Scott’s Grove contains nine of the more than 100 affordable houses and apartments that trust managers, scattered across the island’s six towns, with more in the pipeline.

But the vast majority of these accommodations are reserved for low-income people (those earning 80% of the county’s median income), and nowadays middle and even higher incomes cannot afford housing on the island. .

Faria and others note that in addition to wealthy homebuyers driving up prices, private entities bought properties and turned them into vacation rentals at exorbitant rates.

Arielle Faria, pictured here with her husband, Augusto Faria, is a director of the Edgartown Affordable Housing Committee.  (Wilder Fleming / WBUR)
Arielle Faria, pictured here with her husband, Augusto Faria, is a director of the Edgartown Affordable Housing Committee. (Wilder Fleming / WBUR)

Faria and Silber are both members of a coalition trying to create a Martha’s Vineyard housing bank. They’re working with groups across the state, including Nantucket, Boston, Truro, and Somerville, to try and fund affordable housing through an additional tax on high-end real estate transactions.

The Housing Bank coalition is hoping that these so-called “transfer fees” could also help funded projects for more middle-income families.

“The islands are like the canary in the coal mine … don’t wait for your [town’s] the median home price hits $ 1.3 million because you have so many fewer options once they get here. “

Laura Silber

In the meantime, the six towns on the island are trying to work together to resolve the housing crisis. Jeff Kristal is a selected member of the Town of Tisbury Board of Directors.

“I think we have a lot of people who are very dedicated to the cause of finding a solution, and not just housing banks,” Kristal said. “I think we have our affordable housing committees that do that. I think there are town planning councils that meet and discuss it regularly. We have selected men who continue to push the agenda forward in all areas. cities. “

Kristal says he supports efforts to create a Martha’s Vineyard housing bank, as well as loosening some zoning rules to build more housing.

Silber says the rest of the state should take that into account.

“The islands are like the canary in the coal mine,” she said. “I would advise other cities in Massachusetts… please don’t wait until your median home price hits $ 1.3 million because you have so many fewer options once you get here.

Still, Silber has high hopes for a pair of bills on Beacon Hill that would allow towns and villages in Massachusetts to set up their own housing banks.

Rep. Dylan Fernandes, who represents Falmouth, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket at State House, is a co-sponsor of one of the bills.

“The biggest short-term problem the state of Massachusetts is facing right now is these out of control house prices, which are causing massive insecurity for families in the state,” Fernandes said. “All we ask is that the state allow cities and towns to charge 2% fees on multi-millionaires who pay for multi-million dollar homes that can go into affordable housing banks that meet the needs of local communities. I think it’s incredibly fair. and reasonable to ask, and given the state of our housing crisis, this is absolutely the right thing to do. “

But even if the legislation advances into 2022, Fernandes admits communities probably wouldn’t see the dividends for several years.

With a report by Paris Alston from WBUR

This segment aired on October 22, 2021.

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