You're going to need a bigger bylaw.
August 9, 2016 8:02 AM   Subscribe

Martha's Vineyard is well known as an idyllic summer vacation spot, but all is not well on the island. Affordable housing is hard to find. Housing for seasonal workers is hard to find. 57% of the dwellings on island are seasonal...

...and in the town of Chilmark that number is more like 75%. One carpenter-turned-filmmaker explores these problems by focusing on gigantic trophy homes that sit empty for nine months. One Big Home is, unfortunately, probably not coming to a theater near you.
posted by vrakatar (40 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 


[Couple comments deleted; tiny typo fixed; carry on.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 8:18 AM on August 9, 2016


Galt's Galapagos.
posted by srboisvert at 8:57 AM on August 9, 2016 [6 favorites]


Living in Rhode Island, I have long been curious about the island and I want to spend a day seeing the beautiful beaches and dunes... But this kind of inequality is a real problem, and I am going to go track down this movie now. Thanks for the heads-up!
posted by wenestvedt at 8:59 AM on August 9, 2016


I watched the trailer, and read the links about the affordable housing issue.

But I'm not sure that I grok the connection between trophy houses and the lack of other affordable housing.

Maybe the full doco goes into it -- but how will limiting house size lead to increased development of "workforce" housing options? It seems like the documentary and the article are talking about two separate problems.

Like, I can imagine lots of ways that huge houses can be a blight on an area. Especially if these homes are sitting on acres and acres of what were once public access beaches, or if some of the extensive (from the aerial photographs) excavation/regrading is harming habitats/encouraging erosion, etc.

I can also imagine lots of ways that development focused on the wealthy can exclude development for working-to-middle class folks. For example, the whole San Francisco thing where it makes more sense to build luxury condos than affordable apartments.

But forcing houses to be smaller won't lead to more affordable housing. It just leads to very expensive small houses.
posted by sparklemotion at 9:07 AM on August 9, 2016


Isn't inequality the whole point of the island?
posted by thelonius at 9:16 AM on August 9, 2016 [28 favorites]


But forcing houses to be smaller won't lead to more affordable housing. It just leads to very expensive small houses.

I'll admit this may be kind of a roundabout way of looking at it, but it's possible that the theory is that if you limit the size of the houses, then the nouveau-riche market which treats a McMansion as the real estate equivalent of a big dick would dry up, which would drive prices down to more comfortable and in-reach levels for the rest of us.

I'll admit it's a stretch, though.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:17 AM on August 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


Sparkle- for one thing, the megahomes will not resell to local working people. And in a more global sense they suck power and heat, empty, all winter long, not all of them but many of them. And they do not scale with ANYTHING.
posted by vrakatar at 9:20 AM on August 9, 2016 [3 favorites]


I feel like we'll be able to say that progressive politics has made a real dent in the status quo when places like this start showing up on AirBNB.
posted by mhoye at 9:23 AM on August 9, 2016 [3 favorites]


Affordable housing is needed. Housing ought to be a right, not a privilege. That said, living in an inaccessible vacation destination need not be a right.

It gets weird when people with too much money create these remote vacation towns, and then eventually the workers who don't have too much money settle there. It's tempting to say "if you can't afford to live there, you shouldn't be there," but often it's "my parents could afford to be here, but I can't, but I can't afford to move either."

Working for the public defender's office, I see that we spend money and waste attorneys' time getting out to the Vineyard to occasionally help indigent clients, and it's just this weird frustrating feeling of "how did it come to be that someone's indigent and living in this rich person vacation town?

It's just a super frustrating feeling, and I can't help but feel like even if we had better social programs and protections, and less income inequality, it STILL wouldn't make sense to be complaining about a lack of affordable housing on Martha's Vineyard.
posted by explosion at 9:24 AM on August 9, 2016 [12 favorites]


people with too much money create these remote vacation towns,

umm, Chilmark was incorporated in 1694 and is a tiny agricultural town. About a thousand people live there.
posted by vrakatar at 9:31 AM on August 9, 2016 [17 favorites]


Housing ought to be a right, not a privilege. That said, living in an inaccessible vacation destination need not be a right.

Except that these inaccessible vacation destinations rely on relatively cheap labor to function. The community has an interest in there being somewhere for the people who work at ice cream stands or shops that sell pants with little whales on them to live.* Even accepting that Martha's Vineyard, playground of the wealthy, is a desirable thing to have you still need somewhere for those people to live.

*Okay I'm describing Nantucket, but I've never been to Martha's Vineyard. At the risk of inviting my wife's wrath down on my head, I'm assuming they're pretty similar.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 9:35 AM on August 9, 2016 [15 favorites]


Before MV became a presidential vacation spot, it was pretty working class in socioeconomic terms. It had a relatively large proportion of black families for the area, as well as immigrants. From what I understand (my mother's side of the family immigrated to MV in the early 20th century and lived there until somewhat recently), tourism was always a source of income, but until the late 1970s-early 1980s, the island had its own economic existence.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 9:41 AM on August 9, 2016 [6 favorites]


I figure it's only a matter of time before the super-rich denizens of the Vineyard stop pretending and just go back to building servants' quarters like the good old days.
posted by briank at 9:41 AM on August 9, 2016 [9 favorites]


I figure it's only a matter of time before the super-rich denizens of the Vineyard stop pretending and just go back to building servants' quarters like the good old days.

If you think they got to be super-rich by genuinely giving a shit about the working and living conditions of their employees, I have some unpleasant news for you.
posted by mhoye at 9:47 AM on August 9, 2016 [2 favorites]


The people arguing that attempting to reshape the market through regulation will likely be insufficient to solve the problem are right. Really what we need is genuine land reform — the straightforward transfer, without compensation, of vacation homes to people who actually live there. If done correctly it could both solve the acute current problem, and also sharply suppress future vacation home construction.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 9:50 AM on August 9, 2016 [7 favorites]


This has been an ongoing problem out on the islands for at least as long as I've been alive, so far as I know. In the modern era, the economies of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket have been utterly dominated by tourism; both seasonal daytrippers and weekenders and the wealthy (and ultra-wealthy) owners of summer homes. Year-round housing and job opportunities for middle-class and working-class people have always been real hard to come by, despite the need that somebody needs to be building houses, maintaining roads, feeding the year-rounders, and generally keeping the infrastructure going in the off-season so that things can be in place for the summers.

It's basically the same problem you get in every seasonal tourist town, but exacerbated by the isolation of living on an island. It's a rough life out there for a townie.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 10:00 AM on August 9, 2016 [2 favorites]


If you think they got to be super-rich by genuinely giving a shit about the working and living conditions of their employees, I have some unpleasant news for you.

I didn't say they would be nice servants' quarters.
posted by briank at 10:01 AM on August 9, 2016 [4 favorites]


YCTAB, I cannot think of a better way to put government in the hands of resurgent Republicans for a generation
posted by Countess Elena at 10:03 AM on August 9, 2016 [3 favorites]


Sparkle- for one thing, the megahomes will not resell to local working people. And in a more global sense they suck power and heat, empty, all winter long, not all of them but many of them. And they do not scale with ANYTHING.

Smaller homes won't resell to working people either.

I wonder if the political will exists for a solution that lets the rich be rich while also helping get affordable housing get built. Something like a penalty for new house construction over a certain size. Like you can build your $10 million house, but you need to pay $1 million into a fund for the building of affordable housing (that will be available year-round for the price of the average rent of an equivalent unit in January -- or something, the details can be tweaked.)

The environmental concerns can maybe be offset by a similar penalty for electricity/natural gas use for properties that are "vacant" over the winter (this just creates an incentive for the truly rich to hire someone to "live" in their mansions for 9 months, but I betcha that those folks have "groundskeepers" already).
posted by sparklemotion at 10:04 AM on August 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


And yeah, people need to keep in mind that Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket have been continuously settled pretty much since the beginning of European colonization, and then before that by Native Americans going back into time before memory (and there are still Native Americans out there). They were self-supporting communities long before they became tourist havens. Lots of the people who live there year round trace their residency back over multiple generations. So the whole "my parents could afford to live here, but I can't, but I can't afford to move either" thing that explosion mentioned above is very much a thing. This unsustainable, exploitative economic model wasn't invented from whole cloth; it grew into existence over the last few generations.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 10:04 AM on August 9, 2016 [11 favorites]


briank: "I figure it's only a matter of time before the super-rich denizens of the Vineyard stop pretending and just go back to building servants' quarters like the good old days."

i.e. "workers' dormitories," already an option on the table: "Gardella said dormitories and even a retired docked cruise ship have been brought up..."
posted by crazy with stars at 10:07 AM on August 9, 2016 [2 favorites]


One of the problems we're having in the Adirondacks (NY) is that the affordable housing is being bought by out-of-town folks and rented on air bnb. Some are mcmansions, but most are affordable seeming, and the vast, vast majority are vacant for 10 months of the year. I don't blame anyone for doing it, but it definitely sucks for local folks. And it's pushing the economy into even more of a two month money grab. I rented a cabin for two years from someone who had it on the market. It ended up being bought by a family from Virginia as a weekend place. Sucked. Now I live in transient housing and love it! Every six months a new group; now it's Jamaicans and Romanians. So if you're in the same position that I am, don't poo-poo the workers' housing!
posted by release the hardwoods! at 10:19 AM on August 9, 2016 [3 favorites]


Really what we need is genuine land reform — the straightforward transfer, without compensation, of vacation homes to people who actually live there.

You'd have to repeal the 5th (or 14th) amendment first, since the 5th prevents takings without compensation (and that applies to the states by way of the 14th amendment).
posted by jpe at 10:36 AM on August 9, 2016 [2 favorites]


Don't forget the opposition to offshore wind farms from Cape Codders & Vineyarders -- many of those defenders of scenic vistas likely also being the folks who own these vacant-November-through-April-giant-houses. Gaaaaah.
posted by wenestvedt at 10:51 AM on August 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


The Vineyard actually has quite a bit of land suitable to development. Wouldn't be hard at all to build several hundred units near the airport for year-rounders -- 800 sq ft apartments build for $150/foot can be rented at $800 a month and 1,600 square foot townhouses built for $250/foot can be rented for $2,500. You wouldn't need a penny of government subsidy, just some land use variance compensated by enforceable restriction on purchaser / renter to year-rounders.

Seasonal workers, that's a harder nut to crack. No way the math works to build new housing that can cover its costs from 3 months of the rent that people making $13/hour can afford.
posted by MattD at 11:04 AM on August 9, 2016 [5 favorites]


We do need land reform, but it needs to be along the lines of reclassifying residential real estate as a non-commodity resource subject to resale restrictions beyond what is currently weakly enforced by tax law. People have a fundamental right to a home, and the current trend of converting ownership stock to premium-rate rental stock flies in the face of what should be a central pillar of society.
posted by grumpybear69 at 11:10 AM on August 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


Thomas Bena, that carpenter/filmmaker, definitely is not an outside agitator – for the last 15 years he’s also been the executive director of the Vineyard’s film festival . He’s also a good guy; I met him in March 2005 when my band from Maine traveled down there to play Saturday and Sunday at MVIFF in the breaks between film showings. (That weekend, the festival put us up not in a McMansion, but in one of the most enlightened housing communities in New England.)

I'm not sure that I grok the connection between trophy houses and the lack of other affordable housing.

It’s not a matter of large or small houses so much as land. If the rich will pay big money for the limited acreage available, no one else can afford it. The prices around here collapsed enormously awhile back, but today – checking online – I see that a 1.01 acre lot just down the street is going for $140,000. (Not any structure, just the land.)

It's basically the same problem you get in every seasonal tourist town, but exacerbated by the isolation of living on an island... the whole "my parents could afford to live here, but I can't, but I can't afford to move either"... is very much a thing... [around here] the affordable housing is being bought by out-of-town folks and rented on air bnb.

All true in this area as well. For generations the big houses have been empty most of the year; now many of the small houses are as well. And most of the summer workers are back home in Jamaica, Bulgaria, the Ukraine, etc.
posted by LeLiLo at 11:41 AM on August 9, 2016 [4 favorites]


No way the math works to build new housing that can cover its costs from 3 months of the rent that people making $13/hour can afford.

which is why a restaurant in leelenau county, michigan was forced to close - rents are 800, wages are low, locals want permanent work, say in traverse city, summer college kids can find comparable jobs in their hometowns and live with their parents and the owners just could not find anyone who wanted a job that wouldn't pay the rent for 3 months a year
posted by pyramid termite at 12:38 PM on August 9, 2016


I see that a 1.01 acre lot just down the street is going for $140,000. (Not any structure, just the land.)

Is that intended to be an example of a high price? Because that seems like kind of a steal for a full acre less than a mile from the ocean and a national park. I get that the peak price might have been much higher, but this doesn't seem unreasonable.

I recently house hunted in a low cost of living area of the country and $70k for a half acre lot in an even partially desirable area would have been a steal (enough to get us to build new, instead of buying a house).
posted by sparklemotion at 12:41 PM on August 9, 2016 [5 favorites]


The problem will solve itself when the sea levels rise.
posted by srboisvert at 1:50 PM on August 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


They shoulda never closed the beaches on july 4th weekend. I know Amity means friendship, but when people think you're the mayor of shark city, well, I mean, my kids were on that beach, too. *fumbles with cigarette*
posted by valkane at 1:50 PM on August 9, 2016 [3 favorites]


The film goes into many of these issues in depth, and I hope it becomes available digitally so more people can see it. It is also the filmmakers personal story- when we meet him it is ten years ago, he's doing the "Vineyard shuffle", moving seasonally, and by the end of the film it is 2013 and he's a homeowner. And he feels a little guilty because he ends up with a house that might be bigger than he really needs.

I realize that without the summer economy this island would be screwed, but the reason it is a great place to visit is in large part because it is a great place to live, in great measure because of preservation and conservation both ecological and cultural.

As far as this:
Isn't inequality the whole point of the island?

No. No sir it is not. Community is the whole point of the island. Not having billboards and strip malls and hotels built to the waterline everywhere is the point of the island. Natural beauty and a laid back vibe are the point of the island. The filmmaker, like many people, came here to work for a summer and decided he had to stay, because it is different here, not for everyone perhaps, but different.
posted by vrakatar at 2:50 PM on August 9, 2016 [2 favorites]


Wow, I worked with Thomas Bena when I lived on the Vineyard over a decade ago. One of the problems is that the richer people have more power to set things like minimum lot size. After I'd been there for several years I found a smallish (1/3 of an acre in an area zoned for 1/2 acre lots) rural lot owned by an off-island non-profit and they were willing to sell it to me for a reasonable price. However, when I went to the town to see if they would let me build on it they would not. All those vacation houses around it really needed their big yards, you know.

There is almost no affordable year-round rental housing because working families can rent their houses out week by week in the summer and make their whole year's worth of mortgage and tax payments. They cram in with relatives or camp. Like many people I knew there I spent several summers camping here and there. People who were born and raised there, and whose families have been there for generations, cannot afford to buy homes there.

I worked on some of those ridiculous houses both as a carpenter and as a house cleaner. Many of them get used for mere weeks every year, but they are kept heated and cooled year-round because extremes in temperature are not good for houses, and because their owners might want to pop in for the occasional weekend.
posted by mareli at 4:39 PM on August 9, 2016 [5 favorites]


Many of them get used for mere weeks every year, but they are kept heated and cooled year-round because extremes in temperature are not good for houses, and because their owners might want to pop in for the occasional weekend.

Gah, that makes me sick. Vacant is bad enough but heated and cooled?? I've been thinking about air con because summer lasts too long here and I can't take it anymore (Australia) but I still feel guilty about the energy waste since we did fine without it until the last decade when it became more common in homes.
posted by kitten magic at 7:49 PM on August 9, 2016 [2 favorites]


It's a similar story lots of places....the people who are causing the problem could care less. They might venture out every now and then, perhaps to an "awesome" ice cream parlor or the like or who knows even have their own ice cream making wing. If it gets difficult for the help to find housing, they will develop a wing for that or have them helicoptered in during the morning. You have to understand for many, many of the people capable of spending this much money on this type of stuff none of the problems here matter.
posted by skepticallypleased at 8:37 PM on August 9, 2016 [2 favorites]


I say or at least think this on many topics, but the problem is the extreme inequality itself and only that. There is no equitable way to give just a subset of non-wealthy people housing in an extremely desirable area that will not create just move the line around who is getting screwed. (Making these areas really crappy with traffic and sprawl, while keeping them fairly expensive, is a realistic option but not an attractive one.)

99.999% of America isn't going to be living in the best places in the country no matter what you do. But if you can actually compress incomes & wealth again and increase the power of lower income workers (IMO through empowered unions, minimum wage laws, progressive income taxes, wealth taxes, cutting out non-competes, no "right to work" crap, etc.) you can get to the point where the people who do the service jobs in these places are getting paid something decent to compensate them for high rents and they have legitimate other options if they don't want that. In an improved world workers could give the finger to anyone who suggests they should get tent-living wages. And fewer ultra rich would exist to scoop up valuable land they only use a couple months a year.

To steal an example from Krugman, people used to wear clothing that was so intricate they couldn't dress themselves. Rich people had servants in clothing like that, who in turn were dressed by their own lower-status servants. This stopped not because the clothes were confiscated, but because workers got other options and even many rich couldn't afford to keep people on staff to dress them. (Social norms played a role too so by all means criticize the new Gilded Age aristocrats.)
posted by mark k at 9:20 PM on August 9, 2016 [5 favorites]


It doesn't have to be on an island. The same (or similar, I guess) problem happens in the mountains of Colorado. It's very difficult to afford to live in a ski town, and work at the ski resort. Lots of places are empty in the summer and/or winter for much of the time, or are Air BnB'd out. Lots of locals have taken to the surrounding forests, but that has caused problems of its own.
posted by alex_skazat at 8:10 PM on August 10, 2016 [3 favorites]


I just got tix to a screening Aug 29th, this time I'll stay for the q and A ask complicated questions.
posted by vrakatar at 10:04 PM on August 11, 2016 [1 favorite]


I had to bug out of the show tonight but had a chat with the filmmaker and sent him a link to this thread. He told me a few towns on the cape want to screen the film and he's got some buzz for some other festivals, and there will be a free screening in October here. There were supposed to be two shows tonight, by popular demand they added a third.
posted by vrakatar at 5:46 PM on August 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


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