Amid Escalating Housing Crisis, Voters Approve $6.5 Million Tax Override For Affordable Housing

Jason Graziadei •

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The island's affordable housing crisis was once again the undercurrent for many of the conversations at Saturday's Annual Town Meeting, and when it came time for Nantucket voters to pony up, they did so. In a big way.

Town Meeting approved a $6.5 million tax override to fund affordable housing initiatives on the island. And the final vote was emphatic: 607 people approved the permanent tax increase, while 226 voted in opposition.

More than 72 percent of those in attendance offered their endorsement of Article 18 after an emotional debate in which a handful of island residents expressed reservations about the spending, while others shared personal experiences of how they had benefited from affordable housing initiatives, or hoped to in the future.

The annual $6.5 million in funding for affordable housing, however, still faces another hurdle: it must be approved again on the ballot as Question 6 when voters head to the polls on May 23. 

But if Saturday's vote is any indication, there may be a well of support for further taxpayer spending in the affordable housing arena even after the $67 million already approved by voters for affordable home ownership and rental projects since 2018.

If approved at the ballot, the override would raise the annual tax bill for the average year-round property valued at $1.68 million (with the residential exemption) by approximately $211 per year.

"I'm willing to pay more in taxes so people can have affordable housing," said Carl Borchert. "It breaks my heart to see these people who are working their fingers to the bone to try to make the Nantucket dream a reality for them."

Article 18 was called for debate by former Select Board member Rick Atherton, who had previously championed the $20 million "Neighborhood First" affordable housing funding source in 2019. But on Saturday, Atherton said it was a matter of trust, and that taxpayers would be losing their voice by signing over that much funding each year without a specific plan for how to spend it. 

"The best thing to do is set this aside at this point, ask the town and affordable housing trust folks, how much money is necessary to get to the 10 percent 'safe harbor'," Atherton said. "I think once we reach safe harbor, our approach to the affordable housing situation might change. It might not, but it deserves an open, free, without retribution, discussion of the proper course."

Others were concerned about what they perceived to be the lack of progress in creating new affordable housing units with the funds previously allocated by Town Meeting. While the town has acquired lots on Orange Street, Vesper Lane, White Street, and Bartlett Road for affordable housing projects, while buying down affordability opportunities in the Richmond Great Point development, it is only the Wiggles Way development off Fairgrounds Road that shows visible progress. And even that project is still behind its original schedule and over its initial budget.

"People don’t think they’ve seen enough for their money," said Select Board candidate Cliff Williams. "People want to see more for their money, and until then, we shouldn’t appropriate any more."

But it was island resident Ronald Bamber's comments about affordable housing that got Town Meeting buzzing.

"There's so many people that are coming here, and you're doing this affordable housing, it's better if you let them - they'll be better people if they go out and work and get the property on their own. Believe me," Bamber said. "It should not be for all the people that are here who want affordable housing. How can you cram it all? And you're destroying this beautiful, historic island. This is outrageous. Now there's $6.5 million? You've already spent $70 million, I believe, already. Enough is enough. You're destroying the island. Enough already. You people aren't going to like what I have to say, but I'm telling the truth and the way it is."

Bamber's comments prompted a number of people who followed to remark on the cost of real estate - the average home sale is now over $4 million - and how the market has changed drastically to put housing opportunities out of reach for most working-class people. A number of individuals who live in affordable housing units - including Kate Deras, the owner of a Habitat for Humanity home - spoke out in support of the operating override.

Esmeralda Martinez, who works in the town's Planning & Land Use Services department and is an elected member of the School Committee, also urged support for Article 18.

"I’m in support of the affordable trust fund," Martinez said. "I also will speak on behalf of the Latino community: your gardener, landscaper, painter, roofer. Because of the affordable housing trust fund, I was able to get the down payment assistance to
get my home and provide secure housing for my family. I wear multiple hats in this community. Because of that, I am able to serve on the School Committee, in local
government , and be a liaison to the Latino community. I understand transparency is the key, but we need this. We are desperate, we need this."

Others who spoke out in favor of the article included attorneys Steven Cohen and Arthur Reade, Nantucket Planning Board member Nat Lowell, Select Board member Brooke Mohr, Housing Nantucket executive director Anne Kuszpa, and municipal housing director Tucker Holland.

But one of the more memorable proponents who spoke out was Lorna Dollery. 

"I'm not seeing a lot of representation of the workforce, people in my peer group," Dollery said before she referenced Bamber's comments. "I wish I had known before today that all I had to do was get up and get a job. I've been here for 14 years, I've had multiple jobs and I'm a small business owner...People are asking for proof? I think the proof is there. And the work that the trust is doing is publicly available if anyone is interested enough to look. I know multiple people who have been housed by this type of work. For me, the work they're doing is the first time that I feel hopeful that I may be able to buy a house here one day. This is my home. I've been here for 14 years. I'm an immigrant, and this is my community."

The $6.5 million was just a portion of the funds Town Meeting voters approved for affordable housing on Saturday. Another $8 million in one-time spending was endorsed with the passage of articles 8, 10, and 34, for a total of $14.5 million. 

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