By JohnCarl McGrady
If you are a landlord or a real estate agent who opposed the three affordable housing articles at Nantucket’s annual Town Meeting (38, 90 and 97) but supports affordable housing in general, prove it to me. Let’s write an article together for next year’s Town Meeting, one we can both support that will meaningfully increase the availability of affordable housing on the island. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org. I don’t believe any of you will, but prove me wrong. Prove you aren’t lying. The ball is in your court.
Let me back up.
On June 5th, a group of real estate agents and landlords led a successful counterattack against local affordable housing plans, shooting down three separate articles aimed at funding affordable housing at Town Meeting, including the much maligned Article 90, which would have put strict limits on short term rentals to encourage longer term, more affordable ones. This is not the first time that a group of Nantucket citizens has aligned in harsh opposition to the idea of affordable housing—think of Surfside Crossing, the 40b affordable housing complex that led to the Nantucket Tipping Point organization, a group of people who have now become a primary opposition to attempts at affordable housing developments on island.
Affordable housing is Nantucket’s single most polarizing issue. No topic sparks more anger, more personal insults, or more vitriol than affordable housing. And yet, if you were to attend Town Meeting on June 5th with no prior knowledge of the affordable housing conflict on Nantucket, you would be forgiven for being utterly confused. Almost every single person who got up to speak against the trio of affordable housing articles prefaced their speech with sweeping support for the concept of affordable housing before zeroing in and explaining why this particular article was bad. Were these articles all just very poorly written and targeted in the wrong direction?
No, they weren’t.
The problem isn’t the articles, it’s that the opposition is against affordable housing and just can’t say it, because they will alienate their constituents. Let me be clear: I recognize that there are cogent and intelligent reasons for opposing any of the articles on their own, and a logical person could reasonably come down in opposition to any of the three. For instance, some people have spoken quite eloquently against Article 97 while still supporting Article 90, and I have complete respect for that position. There are situations where affordable housing articles cross the line, and I personally was against the unamended version of Article 90 and fairly neutral on 97. I am also sure that many people who voted against these articles were genuinely convinced that all of them individually were bad for the island while still supporting affordable housing, but the people doing the convincing absolutely do not believe that, they are just good at debate.
They know that the island wants affordable housing opportunities. A straight-up poll on the question of whether there should be more affordable housing on Nantucket would find overwhelming support—most people on the island don’t own their own home, renting a house with the constant threat of eviction hanging over their heads like a stormcloud. So when they are trying to shoot down a proposal for affordable housing, the opposition has to say that they support affordable housing as a concept, but this proposal is bad, because it will increase traffic, or strain the sewer system, or take money away from an equally important cause, or stress middle-class landlords, or—in a particularly impressive feat of logic—actually make it harder to fund affordable housing.
The opposition has a lot of money at stake, in some cases more money than any of us will probably ever see in our entire lives, which means that they can also afford to spend huge amounts to block proposals they don’t want. They can sue all the way to the Massachusetts Supreme Court, they can run ads on local radio over and over again, they can even buy misleading website URLs and try to con people into thinking they are the Nantucket government. When they flood the market with targeted opposition to specific proposals while still claiming to support affordable housing in general, they come across as rational, reasonable, and in the majority.
This tactic is not specific to affordable housing. Alternative energy opponents on Nantucket have used it with comparable success, blocking a wind turbine at the dump, solar on the Public Schools, and multiple offshore wind farms. In none of these cases did any of the major opponents claim to be against alternative energy—on an island that votes for Democrats by margins of close to 50% such a claim would be political suicide—and yet they never have their own counterproposals, either.
The favourable interpretation of this is that they actually do support alternative energy and affordable housing, but they don’t want it anywhere near them. This phenomenon has a name in political science—NIMBY, or Not In My Backyard, where people support liberal causes like providing for the homeless or using wind turbines, but don’t want to see homeless shelters, or wind turbines, or affordable housing complexes in the area they live in, or in a way that will reduce their bottom line. The unfavourable interpretation is that they are just parading facsimiles of liberal ideology in an attempt to trick voters into supporting them.
Face it. A lot of these people—not all—are very, very wealthy. They own multiple homes on Nantucket. They build mansions for their families the way you might buy a couch. They don’t support wealth redistribution, or they would start redistributing their wealth. They don’t care that you are barely paying your rent, or they would start renting out their back-up house for a low price. Some are not rich, and I understand that, but anyone on Nantucket who is renting a house for others to live in does not exist in the same economic reality as someone who is renting a house for themselves to live in.
The reason for that is extremely simple.
If someone who is renting a house to others hits a financial snag tomorrow, they can just sell that house and be fine. If someone who is renting a house for themselves hits a financial snag tomorrow, they’re homeless and living on the streets. These are not comparable economic realities. Fearmongering about economic anxiety from people who own a summer home is akin to a white person crying about racial discrimination because their parents are Italian. At the Town Meeting on June 5th, one woman gasped in a desperate, nearly tearful voice that if Article 90 were to pass, she might face the unbearable burden of having to sell her family’s summer home.
Meanwhile, my father was out working all day Saturday, unable to attend Town Meeting because he had to get overtime pay so my family won’t be homeless next month.
But these comparisons fall on deaf ears, because, well, nobody denies that we need more affordable housing. They might think it in their heads, but when it comes time to speak, they all assure everyone they are wholeheartedly in favour before explaining why every single proposal anyone could possibly come up with to address the problem is flawed and can’t be put into action.
I want to be wrong about this. I want to be proven wrong, which is why I led with the call to action that I did. I want you to email me, I want to sit down and draft an Article that the wealthy real estate agents on this island will promote as a good solution for affordable housing, but I am extremely skeptical that will ever happen, and I am doubtful it is even possible. I don’t even think I’ll get a single email.
But you know who you are.
You can prove me wrong. You can prove you care, and you can prove you want to help.