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Nantucket housing crisis raising fears among hospital administration, fire chief

Downtown Nantucket
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Downtown Nantucket

First responders, housing advocates, and realtors painted a bleak picture of Nantucket's housing crisis in front of state lawmakers recently.

The chiefs of the fire and police departments say they are losing staff to a point they are worried about public safety; realtors say that small business owners are leaving the island for cheaper housing, and housing officials say they've seen instances of families cramming inside single-family homes just to have a place to live.

They all supported bill H.4201, in front of the Joint Committee on Revenue on Friday.

It would place a .5 percent tax on real-estate transactions over $2 million on Nantucket. Funds would be collected for the development of affordable housing, similar to the island's land bank which collects funding for conservation.

Nantucket — as well as Martha's Vineyard — have put similar bills before the legislature before, following support at town meetings. Other Cape towns, like Chatham have asked state lawmakers to pass similar measures, as have cities like Somerville.

But advocates for the legislation — including the bill's sponsor, Falmouth Democratic representative Dylan Fernandes, says that outside interests groups have lobbied against it, like the Massachusetts Association of Realtors.

On-island realtors support the initiative. Like Brian Sullivan with the Nantucket Association of Real Estate Brokers and the Nantucket Housing Trust.

He was among the many islanders testifying before lawmakers on Friday. He says he's seen many leave the island because of a lack of housing.

“It is tremendously difficult for people to have hope in staying here," Sullivan said. "I have many in my peer group with small businesses, packing up shop, moving out of state, moving to places that are less expensive. We’re losing jobs and people in the community on a regular basis.”

The average home value on Nantucket is more than $3 million. The median home is about $2.5 million. And there is currently no house for sale for under $1 million.

That's forcing some public safety officers to leave the island at an "unprecedented rate."

Nantucket fire chief Stephen Murphy told lawmakers Friday he's worried his department will turn into a "commuter department," which is problematic for a community 30 miles out to sea.

Murphy says that the island can't rely on mutual aid from neighboring towns, like most municipalities in the Commonwealth. Instead, they rely on off-duty firefighters and paramedics in the event of larger fires or when multiple ambulances are out on calls. In those instances, off-island officers wouldn't be able to step in.

Murphy also relayed that the police department currently has six openings, and three other officers are in the final process of leaving. Every officer, he said, cited a lack of housing in their reasons for leaving.

Housing advocates told lawmakers that some of the families that have managed to stay on the island, many are not in good living conditions.

Brooke Moore with the island’s affordable housing trust said that the pandemic highlighted how bad it was. Multiple families putting in requests at the food pantry, used the same address.

"Not only did we see that a three bedroom home was housing 3 entire families, but also the unfinished basements of these homes are housing individuals and families with young children," Moore said. "In the post pandemic era, these circumstances will not change.”

Anne Kuszpa, executive director of Housing Nantucket, a local non-profit, echoed Moore's comments, saying that better options were badly needed. She said that service workers, nurses, teachers and others are struggling on the island.

“It’s young people, who periodically have to live in their cars or a friend's couch," Kuszpa said. "Or parents and children living in overcrowded situations with unrelated adults. We believe our people deserve better than this.”

Beyond municipal workers and families, health officials fear that the lack of housing on Nantucket could impact the quality of health care.

Mass General Bringham has endorsed a similar, state-wide transfer fee that could help towns raise money for affordable housing.

Mass General is the parent company of Nantucket Cottage Hospital.

Prior to Friday's hearing, Cottage hospital CEO Gary Shaw told CAI that they are already struggling to find staff. That's with a national nurse shortage. But the lack of housing only adds another challenge.

They've had to rely on traveling nurses, and with about 300 total staff, they’ve had to supply housing for many of their workers.

“If you thought of how many homes that would take to house those individuals with a median sale of 2.5 million … just do the math. It’s unachievable without some help," Shaw said.

He said that only gets worse near the summer months. "There aren’t a lot people that can afford a 2.5 million dollar home, so all employers started scrambling to get or bid on homes.” 

The hospital now has almost 80 housing units for staff, but Shaw says maintaining that isn’t sustainable.

It's unclear where the bill is headed next, but joint committee chairman Adam Hinds, a Democrat from Berkshire County, sympathized with the speakers, saying that his district has struggled to find housing for municipal workers with a high real estate market from wealthy out-of-staters moving in.

Sam Houghton has been with the station since the summer of 2017. Before that, he worked at the Falmouth Enterprise, where he covered local politics.