Deed Restrictions Or Bust

Caleb Wursten •

To the editor: Nantucket has one of the most advanced housing crises in the country. The Steamship Authority is cutting service by 7 percent, all five of the firefighters hired in 2018 left, and the latest wave of teachers are leaving the public school. Employers of critical services can't find housing for their staff. It’s one thing for a restaurant to close on Mondays. It’s another for the ferry to drop a trip. Migrating whales aren’t the only threat to ferry service. We don’t have the benefit of a cautionary tale pushing us in the right direction on housing policy. If we don’t figure it out, we will be the example others point to.

An expert review of the Nantucket Fire Department concluded, “the grave reality is that the current levels of manpower are going to kill firefighters; if not sooner than later.” I’m friends with five first-year teachers, four are leaving due to housing. There goes my winning Charlie Noble trivia team. The remaining teacher fortunately lives in his parent’s house.

Some progress has been made. For the past several years, we funded affordable housing at Town Meeting. Now we are allocating these funds. But public skepticism and misguided proposals threaten our momentum. “Affordable housing” carries baggage from federal housing projects, rent control, 40b developments in seasonal communities, nonsensical restrictions, and other polarizing programs. Affordable housing professionals, myself included, must admit these faults to maintain the integrity of our work and make room for real solutions – like deed restrictions.

A deed restriction is a rule that governs the use of a property, embedded in the deed. Housing Nantucket’s Covenant Program creates permanent deed restrictions. The Nantucket Affordable Housing Trust soon will purchase deed restrictions on open market houses. It’s an asterisk on private property, in our case ensuring it will be owned by members of the community in perpetuity. Zoning also governs the use of property but is cumbersome to apply one property at a time, which is the advantage of deed restrictions.

In most places housing demand is quenched by simply removing barriers to development. Zoning reform in New Zealand caused a construction boom which reduced rents dramatically, by as much as 33 percent in some cities. It is possible to reduce rents on beautiful islands.

Curiously, Nantucket tried this and got higher rents and scarcer services. More housing, counterintuitively, exacerbated our housing crisis. It turned out that more permissive zoning created more second homes. Town Meeting voters are rightly exhausted by new no-strings-attached zoning requests and vote them down. Second homes need workers but don’t provide work. We can measure the imbalance by looking at the population and number of workers in the peak season. In 2014, each seasonal worker served 10.9 people. In 2021, each seasonal worker served 21.9 people, double in just seven years. Working, year-round homeowners feel this weight on their shoulders alongside juiced home equity. Selling out to a fat-walleted off-islander is a constant temptation. Unless we provide an attractive alternative, locals will continue taking this deal.

To correct course we need to accumulate deed restrictions through density incentives, public cash, inclusionary zoning and private deed-restricted developments like those being done by Housing Nantucket. The restrictions on homeowners should be narrow to achieve scale, avoid perverse incentives like discouraging work, and respect property rights.

Let’s stay focused on the problem – the declining availability of workforce homes. And the solution – permanent workforce occupancy through deed restrictions.

Caleb Wursten
Associate Director, Housing Nantucket

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