On wealthy Martha’s Vineyard, costly housing is forcing workers out and threatening public safety

VINEYARD HAVEN, Mass. — Sheryl Taylor works as an administrator for Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. Each summer, she has to leave the island or stay with friends because she can’t afford the high seasonal rents.

How high? The average vacation home rents for $6,500 a week.

“I have spent a significant amount of time couch surfing,” said Taylor, the school’s equity and access coordinator. “With my suitcase in my car, and moving one or two nights here and there with friends on the island.”

Taylor’s plight reflects that of many on the Massachusetts island off Cape Cod. There are plenty of jobs, but restaurants and stores often can’t find enough staff because workers can’t afford to live there. Officials worry public safety is being compromised because they can’t retain or lure correctional officers or 911 dispatchers.

Landlords stand to make far more money from short-term tourists than from year-round residents. Meanwhile, many island homes remain almost permanently vacant, their wealthy owners uninterested in renting them out between fleeting visits.

A new report lays out in stark terms just how many low- and middle-income folks are being forced to move away from Martha’s Vineyard as its popularity with wealthy vacationers soars, causing the year-round population of 20,000 to swell up to tenfold over summer.

In 2012, 40% of islanders earned less than $50,000 a year, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission housing report found. Ten years later, the figure had dropped to 23%. The proportion of people earning between $50,000 and $100,000 also fell over that time, while those earning more than $100,000 almost doubled to 46%.

“So we’ve had a shift in our income distribution. This speaks to the fact that we’re losing year-round residents,” said Laura Silber, the island housing planner who wrote the report. “We’re losing our low- and moderate-income families. We’re losing our middle class, because we have no housing.”

The report shows the average nightly rate among more than 3,000 short-term rentals is $931. And the average home price has more than doubled over the past 11 years to $2.3 million. Nearby Nantucket island is even more extreme, with the median home price reaching $3.55 million.

Dukes County Sheriff Robert Ogden said the cost of housing has become a public safety issue on Martha’s Vineyard, with his agency unable to maintain the 11 or so 911 operators it needs to provide lifesaving information over the phone, such as CPR instructions. Operators who stay often get burned out from working too much overtime, he said.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” Ogden said. “Every year, we’re losing two to three dispatchers because of not only the high cost of living here, but the insecurity of housing.”

One trained correctional officer, he said, was forced to instead take cleaning jobs so she didn’t earn too much and lose her access to low-income housing.

“Can you imagine, in any society, where you would say that I pay someone too much to stay on the job?” Ogden said. “How insane is that?”

Ogden said he has been involved in an effort over the past six years to try to impose a local tax on home sales to help pay for affordable housing on the island, but it still requires new state legislation.

Jason Merrill, who owns the Martha’s Vineyard Bike Rentals store, said people will often stop to ask him if he’s heard of any jobs that come with housing, or any housing options at all.

“It’s definitely a point of contention here in the towns, and town hall meetings, that Airbnb is taking over,” Merrill said.

Many workers, like painting laborer Abelardo Neto, can afford to stay on the island only by cramming together. He said he lives in a place with seven people. They each pay $850 a month in rent.

Olda Deda, an Albanian visiting on a student work visa, said she works three jobs — at a coffee shop and two restaurants — and a big chunk of her wages goes toward her $900 monthly rent. It’s about three times higher than she would expect to pay in Europe, she said, and the housing costs came as a shock to her and many other seasonal workers.

Ed Augustus, the state’s secretary of housing and livable communities, visited Martha’s Vineyard this month to hear directly from residents.

“We’ve heard examples of folks who are coming in on the ferry every single day, sometimes from Falmouth, sometimes from further locations on the cape, sometimes from off cape,” Augustus said. The extra costs and time for travel are making jobs on the island less appealing or cost-effective.

sweeping housing bill that was approved by the state House this month would help, Augustus said. The bill contains $6.5 billion in bond authorizations, tax credits and policy initiatives and is aimed at supercharging the creation and renovation of affordable housing. Building on proposed legislation unveiled last year by Democratic Gov. Maura Healey, the bill still needs to be approved by the Senate.

Until then, people like Taylor will need to keep figuring out how to survive the housing challenge. She pays a huge amount to be at the school for a required two weeks over summer, she said, then come fall she faces all the costs associated with moving into a new rental.

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