Taking Stock of Housing
The Challenge of Building a Life on Nantucket
by: Joshua H. Balling
photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger
Marita Scarlett and Jose Luis Bolanos have never met. But they share a bond. They’ve both had to sit down with their families and discuss the very real possibility of uprooting their lives and moving to the mainland because they couldn’t find housing.
They are among the lucky ones, though, able to stay on Nantucket thanks to one of several housing-assistance programs on the island. The journey to where they are today has been a struggle, and they are not alone.
“We were at a breaking point. Our landlord had to move back in to their house, which meant we had to go,” said Scarlett, a special-education teacher in the public schools, who came to Nantucket in 2000 to work for her aunt and uncle, Jeanne and Richard Diamond, at A.K. Diamond’s restaurant. It is where she met her future husband Jermaine, a chef.
Today they have four children.
“We had a family meeting with the kids. We said we can stay here, but it would mean a real decrease in our lifestyle, with three-bedroom rentals going for about $5,000 a month,” Scarlett said.
“It meant our freshman daughter was going to have to get a job and start contributing. But even then, we couldn’t find anything, even out of our price range.”
“Somehow we managed to scrape up the money for a down payment with help from family, and some creative financing from Citizen’s Bank. We were really lucky, but we were also willing to make a big sacrifice to stay here. The house we moved out of had four bedrooms and a full finished basement. My sister-in-law was able to stay with us to help with childcare,” Scarlett said.
“This house has three bedrooms and no basement. But it’s worth it. We want to stay on Nantucket, and now the uncertainty is gone.”
Bolanos also found help from Housing Nantucket. He lives with his wife and two daughters in a three-bedroom rental home in Tom Nevers. His son will soon join them from El Salvador.
The monthly rent is about $1,000 less than
anything he’d be able to find on the open market, if anything was even available. Housing Nantucket currently has 37 rental properties spread out across the island, and 84 covenant homes.
“We’ve made our life here. I’ve never been anywhere else since I came from El Salvador 18 years ago,” said Bolanos, a mechanic at Don Allen Ford who does HVAC work on the side to make ends meet. He previously lived in a rental off Old South Road, but had to move when the property was sold, ironically for the development of a large-scale residential subdivision that will include some affordable housing.
“My daughter was born here. I have a good job, and I don’t want to leave. To move our family off-island would be super-bad. We love it here.”
Hundreds of islanders every year do the “Nantucket Shuffle,” moving out of their winter home to make room for their landlord’s summer renters, often to a much smaller and sometimes substandard alternative before finding a better situation again in the fall. Others, out of options, leave friends and jobs behind and move to the mainland, where housing is easier to find.
It’s only gotten worse over the last three-plus decades, as home prices have risen to levels unattainable by most working families and houses once rented by year-round families are sold and converted to vacation homes.
“The high cost of real estate has really squeezed out year-round islanders. And it’s spreading. Some of these neighborhoods that have long been year-round, you’d be surprised to see seasonal homeowners buying in,” said Anne Kuszpa, executive director of Housing Nantucket, which is marking its 25th anniversary this year.
“We’ve always had affordable-housing problems, even in the 1980s. Now it’s critical. Our population is increasing while we have less housing. Is there a whole underground of people living somewhere? I think there is, between basements and overcrowding,” said Renee Ceely, executive director of the Nantucket Housing Authority, which spawned Housing Nantucket, manages Miacomet Village’s 41 units of affordable and elder housing, and laid the groundwork
for the 100 percent affordable Sachem’s Path development.
“People come in to check the status of where they are on the waiting list, and you can smell the mildew on their clothing. That’s not healthy. Then there’s the stress,” Ceely said.
The need for housing is not a new one on Nantucket, but its impact truly began to be felt in the 1990s, as the island’s popularity as a vacation destination meant more and more houses were converted to summer rentals. Around the same time, prices began to climb rapidly, to the point where today, the cheapest detached singlefamily homes on the market are listed at $749,000.
As Nantucket Today went to print there were two: a four-bedroom, two-bathroom “fixerupper” on Pleasant Street in need of a top-tobottom renovation, and a two-bedroom, one-bath cottage on Bartlett Road.
At the end of 2018, the average Nantucket home price was $2.7 million, and the median price – the exact middle of the market – $1.8 million.
Year-round rentals are almost non-existent, with more and more disappearing every year. When you can find them, they run from about $3,500 a month for a two-bedroom to $4,000-
$5,000 for a three-bedroom. That’s too much for many islanders, even two-income families, to afford.
Covenant-program prices are capped at $775,973. Those on the market in early April ranged from $325,000 for a vacant lot off South Shore Road to $685,000 for a two-bedroom cottage on Chuck Hollow Road.
To be eligible for a covenant home, a Nantucket family of four can make up to $172,350, 150 percent of the county’s area median income ($114,900).
“We’re two people with careers, with stable incomes. But it’s not enough,” Scarlett said. “One of the things we’ve been talking about at school, is that a teacher’s salary looks pretty good, but when you look at the cost of living, it doesn’t go very far. If you’re even in a position to buy a home, how can you save up enough for a down payment?”
The island can not afford to lose year-round Nantucketers like Scarlett and Bolanos, said Brooke Mohr, vice chairwoman of the Affordable Housing Trust Fund.
The town agency has a staff of one, housing specialist Tucker Holland. It is charged with creating affordable-housing opportunities, including identifying town-owned and private property for housing, and offering down-payment assistance and other programs.
“These are the people we depend on to teach our kids, to serve our coffee, to fix our cars. This is a fabulous community we have, and we are not giving our younger folks a vision of a future here. They are giving up and they are leaving, even the ones who are making really good money can’t find a stable place to live,” Mohr said.
“I know kids who have moved a dozen times before they got to high school. Housing insecurity contributes to mental-health issues, addiction issues, crime and other social challenges.”
“As much as we are trying to preserve land and open space, a lot of what makes us special is the people. We need a diverse group of people to sustain the quality of life for all of us. We can’t import and export people at the beginning and end of the day. Maintaining diversity maintains a healthy community. We have to come up with a solution. Everyone who wants to live here has a right to live here regardless of their income group, but the market is changing the fabric of this community pretty rapidly,” she said.
AN UPHILL BATTLE
There are housing-assistance programs in place, like the rentals and covenant homes offered by Housing Nantucket, and sweat-equity home-ownership opportunities through Habitat for Humanity.
In Sachem’s Path off Surfside Road, all 40 homes were sold for below market value, and Richmond Great Point Development’s “workforce housing” off Old South Road will offer a quarter of its 225 rental apartments and 91 homes at below-market rates when built over the next two years. Miacomet Village, created in the mid-1980s, was the first subsidized housing ever offered on the island. All its units meet federal and state affordability guidelines.
But demand far outweighs supply, and for a long time, there was a stigma attached to affordable housing.
“I have less frustration now than I did in the early 1990s, when I became director of the Housing Authority,” Ceely said. “Politically, affordable housing was such a dirty word. The attitude of the community has changed 100 percent. Unfortunately, a lot of land has already
been developed, and not for affordable-housing purposes. We’re stuck with the question of how much more can Nantucket take.”
Both political and community will to provide affordable housing has long been lagging, town planning director Andrew Vorce said.
“Finally there are some serious resources being put toward the issue of housing after decades of indifference, to be polite,” he said.
“It’s easy to support affordable housing in the broader sense, in the theoretical abstract sense. When it comes down to nuts and bolts, that’s where the opposition comes from. Those voices get amplified. We all know most of it is coming from existing homeowners, and motivated by property-value concerns and fear of change. The voices that need housing are not there, not being heard, not at the intensity of the opposition.”
Ticcoma Green, a 64-unit apartment complex on town-owned land off Fairgrounds Road, is a case in point. The project, which would offer 75 percent of its apartments at below-market rates, sits on town-owned property identified for years as a desirable location for affordable housing. The project was approved by the Planning Board and Historic District Commission, but neighbors have appealed the approvals, and its construction is currently being held up in state court.
THE SPECTER OF 40B
Looming over it all is the state law known as 40B, which requires at least 10 percent of the year-round housing in Massachusetts towns to be affordable. It allows developers to skirt local zoning rules in towns that don’t have 10 percent, as long as they provide at least 25 per-
cent of their housing below market value.
On Nantucket, that 10 percent threshold, called the subsidized housing inventory, or SHI, is 490 housing units. Currently, 132 homes fit the bill, with another 11 waiting to be certified and 308 – including Ticcoma Green and Richmond Great Point – in the development pipeline, for a total of 451.
There are four 40B developments on Nantucket: Miacomet Village, Sachem’s Path, the 28-unit Abrem Quary subdivision off South Shore Road and 40unit Beach Plum Village off Rugged Road. All faced months, and in some cases years, of opposition before eventually being approved.
But none as much as Surfside Crossing, the 60 single-family homes and 96 condominiums proposed last year by developers Jamie Feeley and Josh Posner on just under 13 acres off South Shore Road. As part of the plan, they offered to restrict the market-rate condos to year-round residency and cap their price at $450,000 to $750,000. The goal is to provide an option to islanders who make too much money to qualify for affordable housing but not enough to buy on the open market, they say.
But neither that nor scaling back the
plan to around 100 units has damp-
ened the intense opposition, led by residents of the neighborhood and others around the island who feel Nantucket is being overbuilt.
Surfside Crossing’s density and impact on water quality, traffic, public safety and the quality of life in the neighborhood of oneand two-acre lots off South Shore Road is simply too much for the island to support, they argue.
More than 700 people, many of them members of a citizens’ group calling itself Nantucket
Tipping Point, packed the Nantucket High School auditorium in July to criticize the proposal.
“I hate to see 13 acres of open space completely flattened and paved over anywhere. The traffic will be absurd. Everything about this project is wrong. Environmentally, ecologically as far as water and sewer, just look at it. It’s not something that belongs here,” said Felcon Drive resident David Iverson, one of the Tipping Point leaders, before that meeting.
“But it’s more a sign of where we’re moving as an island that’s more disturbing to me than anything else. Can we continue at this rate of development and still have what draws people here? I feel like I’m seeing the end of a vibrant, healthy community, turning into complete gridlock. If people no longer want to come here, there goes the building industry, the retail industry. What’s going to be left? Run-down docks and no economy.”
As Nantucket Today went to press, Feeley and Posner were asking the ZBA to close the public hearing on their project and render a decision.
“The trouble with 40B is that it makes a mockery out of zoning, and that’s what people resent. You can buy in a three-acre zone, and know who your neighbors are, and then a 40B comes in. The law needs to be revamped,” Ceely said.
Mohr sees things differently.
“Unlike the generation before, who were
maybe able to get land from their families and stay, or acquire land and build a home, that’s not an option anymore. That’s what gets lost when we talk about hating 40B, and hating density,” she said.
HELP ON THE HORIZON?
In the meantime, efforts are underway to push the town to the 10 percent threshold and beyond, to stave off additional 40Bs and buy housing advocates time to come up with plans more in keeping with the character of the community.
A housing-bank bill, currently working its way through the state legislature, would generate annual revenue for affordable-housing initiatives through a 1 percent surcharge on real-estate purchases over $1 million. It’s been an uphill climb, with strong opposition from the statewide real-estate lobby, despite support from the local real-estate industry.
As Nantucket Today went to press, Town Meeting voters had before them two proposals to spend significant money on affordable housing: Former Select Board members Rick Atherton and Tobias Glidden’s citizen’s petition authorizing the town to spend $30 million on property around the island for conversion into affordable rentals; and a $5 million request by the Affordable Housing Trust Fund for the acquisition of property for affordable housing.
Voters will also be asked to take no action on a third request, to spend $27 million on the 100room Nantucket Inn for conversion to at least 39 affordable-housing units, after the owner failed to sign the town’s offer to purchase by March 1.
Had those 39 units been developed, coupled with Richmond Great Point, Ticcoma Green and the existing affordable-housing stock, the town would have met at its 10 percent requirement, housing advocates say.
The Affordable Housing Trust Fund has also brought forth a plan to convert the Pleasant Street fire-station property to a mixed-use development of housing, retail and office space after the fire department moves to its new headquarters on Fairgrounds Road.
While the plan’s design has generated nearunanimous opposition from members of the Historic District Commission and community criticism for its density and appearance, the Select Board agreed in mid-March to further investigate the idea in concept.
“There has been a huge change in the willingness of people to address the problem. I’m really happy as a housing advocate these things are happening. So many people have felt the pain themselves of the shuffle, of not having decent or respectable housing, the pain it’s causing is resulting in more people wanting to do something about it,” Kuszpa said.
“Then you have the 40B threat. People are really against that. They don’t like being backed into a corner. That’s really propelled people to act right now. We’re seeing large expenditures requested at Town Meeting. That’s great.”
Assuming the town one day reaches the 40B threshold, called “safe harbor,” the battle is still far from over, housing advocates said.
“The need extends far beyond 40B, obviously. Our needs at the lowand lower-income level are still very high, and none of these developments are really addressing them. There is a perpetual argument out there that we just need to get the legislature to change 40B because we are special. Talk to our legislators, talk to anyone who’s lobbied for housing-bank bill. It ain’t that easy,” Mohr said.
“Many communities have spent time arguing they are exceptional. That time would be better spent on building housing. You just keep pushing, keep pleading, try to make clear arguments and try to focus on the human side of it. Who do we want to be as a community?”
“The work is not done. Our population continues to grow. New households and families are always coming along. There is going to continue to be a need for affordable housing. Safe harbor just gives us the breathing room to keep working,” he said.
Select Board member Matt Fee believes the town needs to think even bigger, pointing to resort communities like Aspen, Colo. that are working to ensure up to 60 percent of their total housing is realistically available to year-round residents.
“This is a community-preservation issue. The Affordable Housing Trust Fund is too small. It needs to be more than one staff person and a volunteer board. We need to be thinking beyond 490 houses. Let’s look to areas where we can increase density, but only if that increased density is going to affordable housing,” he said.
For many, like Scarlett, the sacrifices they make to stay on Nantucket are worth it.
“It feels amazing to be in our own home. Covenant housing is always what I wanted. I think this is the solution: not 40Bs, not major housing developments. We are in a family neighborhood with almost all year-round people. The location is almost more than I could have dreamed of. The house looks no different than any other in the neighborhood,” she said.
“For me, having a community where there are children who look like my children, who come from all different places, who have all different experiences, I view that as very authentic diversity. Even though we have to work two-plus jobs, the pace of life fits us better. None of us are afraid to work hard. I grew up outside of Boston 30 years ago, and there were places I couldn’t ride my bike. My 10-year-old can ride anywhere today. My kids are just able to explore their world. That’s a real gift.” ///
Joshua Balling is the associate editor of Nantucket Today, and the managing editor of The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.