Nantucket's Housing Challenge: How to Include the Invisible Islanders
It’s spring on Nantucket, which means that if you own a house in or around town, someone has knocked on your door asking if you will rent a room. “Asking” is a euphemism; behind their eyes you see the breaching floodwaters of desperation. Their accents tell you they’ve come a long way—from Eastern Europe or South America--the “other islanders” of color, workers from Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic seem to have calculated the odds on canvasing and spared themselves. They have steady employment, you are immediately assured with a momentary glimmer of pride, but they have looked everywhere for housing….
You’re suddenly conscious of the broad expanse of your house behind you, its three empty bedrooms reserved for four weeks of guests and family or for the renters whose three-week tab equals five times what a worker could pay for a season. You hesitate, because you like to think you’re a good person, and in saying no you offer to take their phone number and let them know if you hear of anything.
“Every year the worker housing situation on Nantucket gets worse,” has now been substantiated in a report called WORKFORCE HOUSING NEEDS ASSESSMENT. The report was commissioned by Housing Nantucket and received funding from a number of local foundations, businesses and organizations. Among its findings: While Nantucket’s year round population has increased by about 14% since 2000, its number of year-round houses has declined. At the same time seasonal housing has been on the rise, now accounting for 64% of the island’s housing units.
Partly because of the report, press coverage of the problem has surged. On Monday, June 15, the Cape Cod Times ran a long article by Cindy McCormick on Nantucket’s housing crisis and on Thursday, June 11 the Cape and Islands radio station, WCAI devoted 50 minutes to the problem facing towns along the Cape and, of course, Nantucket islands. Every news article on the topic includes a story of someone squeezed out of affordable housing. Among the many stories I’ve collected is that of Joseph--- an electrician whose rental cottage has been sold out from under him to a seasonal buyer. Months of searching for comparable housing on the island yielded nothing but he persisted because his son has been in the Nantucket public school for eleven years and he’s been flourishing. Finally Joseph concluded that he has to move to the Cape and so too, his son.
As a seasonal homeowner I am part of the housing problem. I hire painters, carpenters, plumbers, gardeners, window-washers and house-cleaners to maintain my sweet summer retreat and I neither know where they live, in what conditions they live, nor what they really make for a living. For nine months of the year my house is empty, while the staff of people needed to maintain seasonal houses like mine are living somewhere in the ever diminishing number of available units.
Being part of the problem has prompted me to contribute what skills I have to its solution: I can research and write. Initially I collected stories from immigrants who work in construction and house maintenance. Having written so much about old houses on the island, it seemed right I should assume responsibility for getting to know who really maintains them.
Like other journalists who’ve written on the topic, I can now recount skin crawling tales of men living seven to a room, with no kitchen and one bathroom at rents of $700 a person per month; whole families (mom, dad, three children) bunking together in a room, sharing a house with other families who also occupy single rooms, including the living room, and in one case, the kitchen; a family with a handicapped child living in a single basement room with no windows and a constant dampness that covers everything they own with mold.
Telling these stories might raise awareness, it’s true; but most Nantucketers already know what lurks mid-island where front lawns bursting with hydrangeas give way to front lawns crowded with trucks. Moreover, poor worker housing has been such a persistent problem on the island that, like gun violence and drug trafficking, its very persistence makes it seem both unsolvable and tolerable. As a result the community’s response to the problem has been either to vitiate it by recontextualizing it as Richard Ray, director of Nantucket's Health Department did when he said, "This has been their way of life in their country of origin, so to convince them you can't have nine or 12 people in a three-bedroom house is difficult.” (Boston Globe, August 25, 2007) or to initiate a few well-publicized projects (Sachem’s Path) that are unlikely to affect in any way the swelling number of workers crowded in single rooms and basements.
So instead of adding my rhetorical flourishes to the description of the problem, I will focus my research on how the community is currently addressing the problem---what solutions are planned, under review, and how those solutions are arrived at. In the process I will also survey the landscape of potential alternatives to what’s in the works.
Very often solutions fail because the people conceiving and implementing the fix are not the people experiencing the problem. The people with the problem don’t have the power, resources, or technical skills to arrive at a solution. A memorable example of this disconnect is UNAIDS widespread distribution of condoms in Sub Saharan Africa for HIV/AIDS prevention. (Memorable, no doubt, because it involves sex.) The failure of the condom program to impact in any way the spread of HIV/AIDS stems from... well… even when the risk of HIV transmission is high, men and women prioritize having children. Moreover, there are practical impediments: in remote villages women don't carry handbags and sex doesn’t happen next to a nightstand with a reading light. So the first thing to look at in problem solving is the research and feedback process. How are the constituents served by the solution being included in the deliberative process?
The author of the Workforce Housing Needs Study is Judi Barrett. Almost 50 members/leaders of the Nantucket community members are acknowledged as contributing to the study, including the major players in housing and planning: Leslie Snell, Anne Kuszpa, Andrew Vorce, Renee Ceely as well as members of the Board of Selectmen. I emailed Judi Barrett to ask her if she had been able to access the various constituencies being served. In other words, did she find a way to meet with groups of immigrant workers, either single or living with families; elderly islanders; seasonal workers etc. etc. or did she depend on the knowledge of islanders who themselves serve these constituencies.
Her email response was wonderfully thoughtful and candid.
“The issues you raise in your email created lots of frustration for me. Although I had a chance to speak with some fairly well-informed people along the way, it was always in an interview setting, and the interviews were too controlled. I really needed more contact with the populations the study was supposed to help. To get reach out to those critical stakeholders, as you call them – the immigrant population and the island’s white working poor, among others – I had to go out on my own, walking in and out of stores and eateries to speak with the employees. The place I stayed while I was there for a few days also introduced me to some of the hospitality workers, so I had a chance to hear some of their stories.
My experience as a planner is that folks like Nantucket’s seasonal workers and year-round low-income workers do not engage in the kinds of formal organizational networks that make our work a lot easier. They don’t come to public meetings. They’re not connected with the community’s power brokers, so they don’t end up on a list of interviewees. They don’t go to public hearings to testify. They don’t respond to surveys. Instead, they form their own circles and look out at us with a degree of skepticism, as they should. The best way to reach them is to forget about trying to draw them into networks we think would be effective and instead meet them on their own ground. If it had been warmer out when I was doing my research, I would have taken a walk down MaryAnn Drive and talked to people in their yards, or I might have hung out for a while at the White Elephant and talked to some of the grounds keepers. I would have given just about anything to go to a few church services and find the faith communities that welcome Nantucket’s low-income workers. I’ve done that sort of thing on every community planning project I’ve ever worked on, but in this case, the weather made it very difficult.”
Judi Barrett is not alone in recognizing the serious omission of working poor on the committees and at the meetings that focus on workforce housing. Anne Kuszpa Director of Housing Nantucket, said she has been repeatedly frustrated in her attempts at coaxing her housing applicants to attend town meetings, acknowledging at the same time that 13 hour a day workers tend not to have flex schedules.
Leaving for another time a discussion of all the factors that contribute to Nantucket’s marginalized working class, it is a fact that large groups of constituents have not been engaged at all in conceiving or responding to housing solutions. That may be why the proposals that get traction tend to skew towards home ownership. The recommendations of the Workforce Housing Needs Study include a ten-year production goal of 240 units: 60 affordable homes and 180 affordable apartments. The project slated for 4 Fairgrounds Road will feature primarily one and two bedroom apartments.
None of the 12 construction/house maintenance workers I interviewed, all immigrants, all year round residents, said they were interested in purchasing houses. Of course my sample was much too small to draw conclusions from, but the consistency of their narratives caught my attention. Their periods of residency on the island ranged from 3 years to 16 years. All but one shared housing with non-relatives. Their common housing complaint is the insecurity of their leases and the often-egregious conditions of their shared spaces. They work seven days a week, often 13 hours a day and do their socializing on the job; their after-hours are spent resting, not entertaining. Their long-term goal is to save enough money by dint of these extended hours, to purchase a house in a less expensive part of the country. A mason I interviewed is paying down the mortgage on a house he bought in Washington State. He has worked on the island for 14 years and has taken 3 days off this past year. He expects to work on the island several more years.
Does a 1 to 3 ratio of homes to one and two bedroom apartments reflect the real ratio of needs for these “housing challenged” island workers? What would they consider affordable in a one or two bedroom apartment and what would encourage them to enter the mainstream of subsidized housing? These are questions that can only be answered by engaging these groups in the deliberative process.
In my next blog I’m going to look at successful, “civilized” forms of shared housing on the island. And then on to the apartments projected for development at 4 Fairgrounds Road. Stay tuned.