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Construction site: Affordable Housing

Postscript to "Nantucket's Housing Challenge"

The advantage of writing about a topic in a series format is that you can get feedback. You can be flagged down by questions and misunderstandings before you’re 100 miles down the road and it’s too late. Generally readers responded to my Nantucket’s Housing Challenge article by urging me to go full speed ahead but a couple of readers suggested that I was ignoring the needs of the island’s middle class who can’t afford to buy homes or even rent apartments.

In my introductory article I tried to state clearly (but perhaps not clearly enough) that Nantucket’s housing challenge affects many different constituencies, each with different needs and that I was only, at the moment, speaking about the need to engage a particularly voiceless group, a group unrepresented in governing bodies and in administrative offices, a group unlikely to attend town meetings and even to respond to surveys. The fact that this group is large in numbers (by some estimates twice what is recorded) matters if you are trying to create a housing plan that will afford decent living conditions for all residents.

There is often a subtext to objections that affordable home purchase should be a priority, a priority both for journalists and for town planners. That subtext is the presumption that home ownership has greater intrinsic value than housing rental. Andrew Vorce, Director of Planning, wrote an email to me that hints at this subtext:

“I do think that there are those who do want to make a career and a life (teachers, brokers, nurses, romantics, children of Nantucket natives and immigrant parents working in the trades or other jobs) here and retaining those committed to year-round life is important. The community is very different place in the off-season-a place that people cherish. FYI-The Richmond proposal includes 105 ownership units-26 that would be about $250,000 (average price of market single family homes over $1 million) and 264 rentals-66 of which would be affordable and the rest market rate. So while I understand that the “immigrant construction worker” may not have ownership interests, others have different thoughts. Sachem’s Path, with 40 ownership units, has over 400 people on a waiting/interest list."

In our country, home ownership is valued as a community builder. Our laws give ownership tax incentives precisely because we want to encourage people to move out of rentals (with no tax benefits) and “buy a stake in our communities.” But there is a cultural relativism to this concept. Most of Europe doesn’t subscribe to this idea and recently, there has been a great deal of reporting on the fact that many young Americans, for a number of reasons, want to rent, not buy. Locking all of ones savings into a wooden shingled box isn’t for everyone. On Nantucket, the incentive to own a home is propelled as much by the radical insecurity of rentals as by the desire to buy a stake in the community. Fix that and you would need fewer homes for purchase.

Another piece of the subtext to parse is the premise of what it means to be committed to a community.  Renting housing doesn’t necessarily make a person less committed to a community, and commitment to a community takes many forms. Carlos, whom I interviewed for my upcoming article, has been part of the community for the past 15 years without ever attending a town meeting or a PTA meeting (he has no children). But this past year he framed 5 houses. One of these might be yours. The island’s economy depends on people like Carlos whose lives necessitate a 13 hour-a-day, 7 day a week work schedule that precludes other forms of community involvement.