Hyperbole and Housing: For Regular People on Nantucket

Sankaty Lighthouse

When I see a statement like “Best of….” Or “10 Best Places to Visit….” or “Most Expensive….”, it usually makes me leery.  Nantucket has been at the top of a number of such lists recently and I am not sure it is a good thing because, once again, it is only a sound bite.  For instance, when I read that Nantucket is the “Most Expensive County….” In the United States, there is so much more to the story than just the screaming headline.  Nantucket is an island, with a seasonal, tourism-based economy, driven by the desire of the most wealthy to spend time here. The flip side of the headlines is the very real challenges we face on Nantucket as a result of our popularity and some of the metrics that make us different from other communities.  Because we are an island, 30 miles at sea, everything must be brought here by boat or by plane.  The year-round population has grown from 3,500 to around 20,000 people in less than 4 decades because of the popularity of the island economic and work opportunities on Nantucket.  Someone has to service all of the properties that are only occupied for a fraction of the year.

In the middle of the last century, generous individuals donated land to protect open space on the island.  Through the efforts of many, nearly 60% of the island is preserved forever, much of it for the community to enjoy.  A perhaps unintended consequence of this is that there is less land available for residents to live on.  Add to this the rising cost of construction, especially since the pandemic, and our community is experiencing some familiar challenges in the most extreme way it has ever seen.  We’ve been having the conversations about workforce housing since I first moved here in 1977 but, until recently, there was not the political leadership or, quite frankly, the community will, to do anything serious about it.  With the island increasing in popularity, so has the need for year-round housing and the demand for some type of resolution to the problem.

Recent progress includes:  Habitat for Humanity now has 16 houses on Nantucket.  There are 111 Nantucket Housing Needs Covenant Houses that are owned by their occupants.  The Nantucket Housing Authority, Landmark House, Academy Hill and Richmond Great Point provide more affordable housing options for year-round residents.  Sachem’s Path is a friendly 40b development housing 28 families who own their homes, and there are multiple projects (both rental and ownership) currently under way to help provide more housing.

We need to start thinking of our people as infrastructure.  We will not be able to build our way out of this.  The challenge is so large and complex that it will take collaboration on a major scale in order to make meaningful headway.  There have been some glimmers of this already between the Town and the Land Bank, Housing Nantucket and the Housing Authority and others.  Stay tuned.

-Penny Dey