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Friday, November 10, 2023
Nightmare on Main Street. (AIR MAIL)
Nantucket's real estate crisis and its effects on unaffordable housing. From Air Mail:
It’s spring on Nantucket, and kids are riding their bikes down the freshly paved streets. On either side of them, shingled houses sit close together, each with a small lot of freshly cut grass out front.
A car turns the corner. “We see him coming from a mile away,” says Carlese Gumbs, a year-round resident of the island’s Beach Plum Village. “We all run inside. Nobody wants to say hi to him. Nobody wants to even look at him … even the kids,” she says. “Why would you want to speak to someone who has deceived you?”
Gumbs is referring to Joshua Posner, a Nantucket summer resident and the owner of Rising Tide Development, a real-estate-development company on the island. Posner is the developer of Beach Plum, a 10-acre lot with 40 homes on it, 10 of which are “affordable” (meaning, accessible to people whose income is below 80 percent of the town’s median income).
In 2020, Beach Plum Village won the Urban Land Institute’s Jack Kemp Excellence in Affordable and Workforce Housing Award for Small Development. Gumbs, who works as a financial planner and lives in one of Beach Plum’s 10 affordable units, recalls the day Posner won the award because he allegedly came by with his drone, videotaping the neighborhood. “He thinks he has done so much for Nantucket,” she tells me, “while screwing the Nantucketers over.”
When reached for comment, Posner stated: “The need for affordable housing in Nantucket is one of the islands [sic] most urgent problems. I have spent my career developing high-quality affordable housing in communities across the country and I am incredibly proud of that work on an Island where I have been a part time resident for more than 60 years.”
An unofficial spokesperson for Posner and Jamie Feeley, a Nantucket year-rounder and founder of Cottage + Castle, Inc., who worked as a contractor for the second phase of the Beach Plum project, added that her clients “have been subject to a number of unfair, unfounded and frankly inaccurate criticisms over the years by individuals who simply do not like the state’s affordable housing law.”
“Why would you want to speak to someone who has deceived you?”
The Beach Plum Village development was built under a Massachusetts state program called Chapter 40B Affordable Housing. Enacted in 1969, the law was meant to encourage Massachusetts towns to make 10 percent of their housing affordable. To do so, the state allows developers to override local zoning bylaws, earning 40B the nickname “the anti-snob zoning law,” and the welcome reputation of being anti-NIMBY.
40B has added weight on a place like Nantucket, a tony 14-mile-long island off the coast of Massachusetts beloved by Washington politicians including President Biden, who is a longtime visitor, and billionaires Stephen Schwarzman and Charles Schwab, who own summer homes there. Nantucket’s cobblestone streets, shingled oceanfront homes, and bustling harbor hearken back to the town’s history as the 18th- and 19th-century whaling capital of the world—which also made it one of the wealthiest communities in America—and are closely monitored by local officials. Everything from the color of the trim on residents’ windows to whether their houses might fall into the ocean is in the hands of the town government—making the power of 40B to bypass local zoning laws a big deal.
At first, 40B was used by housing authorities and nonprofits such as Habitat for Humanity. Then, around the year 2000, private developers realized that they, too, could use it.
Last week, Nantucket’s Select Board voted to drop a nearly five-year-long lawsuit against Posner and Feeley over their hotly contested, 156-condominium Surfside Crossing development, to be built under 40B. A look into past dealings between town officials and private developers, however, reveals a fraught history of decisions made at the expense of the island’s local, lower-income residents.
Most everyone on Nantucket agrees that there is a housing crisis on the island. A cost-of-living calculation puts Nantucket at 257.5 percent higher than the national average. With the median home price hovering around $4 million, $1.6 billion in real-estate sales in the last year, and tiny fishermen’s cabins in town selling for as much as $6.7 million each, many of Nantucket’s lower-income residents simply have no option but to leave the island.
“We have sold this town to the point that we can’t afford to live on the island,” says Jeff Allen, the president of the Nantucket firefighters’ union. Nantucket’s health director, Roberto Santamaria, tells stories of people living in basements where wires run through the stagnant water that covers the ground. “The desperation has increased,” he says.
Jim Mondani, an alternate member of Nantucket’s Zoning Board of Appeals, which regulates the rights of property owners, has seen residents time-share a single room. He tells me about people living in containers. One man, Mondani says, must vacate his lodging each morning, and can be seen every day sitting on a wooden bench outside the Hub, a picturesque shop on Main Street where summer residents stop in to grab their morning coffees. “He can use the bed every night and then someone else lives there during the day,” Mondani says.
Tucker Holland, Nantucket’s municipal-housing director, has worked to increase the number of affordable units on the island. The problem is, even with Nantucket making progress in upping its number of affordable units, the population has been increasing faster than the housing stock.
“[In 2010], the census number we were working off of was about 10,000 people. Now it’s almost 15,000,” says Santamaria. By this estimate, the year-round population has grown by 50 percent in only a decade. “Unless the affordable-housing inventory increases by the same proportion in the same time period, we are running in place,” he says. The census doesn’t even include the summer population, which Holland estimates to be close to 65,000.
And the affordable developments that exist are not affordable for many. At the Richmond Great Point subdivision, off Old South Road, the “affordable homes,” which make up only 25 percent of the 225 apartments and 94 houses, are renting for “$2,800 for a one-bedroom,” says Santamaria. Several year-round residents listed similar numbers.
“We have sold this town to the point that we can’t afford to live on the island.”
Allen tells a story about entering a house in Richmond to put out a small kitchen fire and finding that the apartment was not only overcrowded but that there were bunk beds in the living room with a curtain in front of them. “If there was a fire, we would never have found those children,” he says, shuddering.
“There was a house with 17 people and one bathroom,” says Meredith Lepore, a nurse practitioner and year-round Nantucket resident. Lepore, who lives in an affordable home with her husband, an operations manager for Nantucket’s FedEx branch, recalls another house where a family of eight was renting a single bedroom.
Many Nantucket residents are running into the same problem: they earn too much to qualify for affordable housing but too little to find anything else. “The middle class, despite us tolerating crappy basement apartments or crappy homes, [are] not … able to apply for affordable housing,” says Allen.
Sunny Daily, a midwife on the island, echoed the sentiment: “People are living in substandard housing because the cost is outrageous…. Is that the community we’re really trying to create?”
“There was a house with 17 people and one bathroom.”
Stories of nurses, firefighters, policemen, and teachers moving away because there is no housing left are common. The principal of Nantucket Intermediate School announced in February that she and her husband, who is the former director of the town’s Department of Public Works, would be leaving at the end of the school year, in large part because they could not find housing.
So why, on an island in such dire need of affordable lodging, are Posner and Feeley, the men touting solutions to Nantucket’s housing crisis, such controversial figures?
The story starts with Beach Plum Village.
“With the imminent successful conclusion of Beach Plum Village—a Nantucket 40B project—Josh [Posner] has combined his commitment to affordable housing with his love for Nantucket,” states Posner’s Web site.
The experiences of many Nantucket residents eligible for affordable housing, meanwhile, offer a different perspective. “Josh [Posner] doesn’t care about the regular everyday people. He cares about how much money he’s going to get from the market-rate homes,” Carlese Gumbs, the Beach Plum resident, claims. “He cares about making it comfortable for them. He cares about giving them everything that they need and want. But when it comes to affordable, he doesn’t care. And that’s sad because these are people that live here year-round.”
Posner stated in an e-mail to AIR MAIL: “Many of my developments, including Beach Plum.... were developed as party [sic] of highly regulated programs, such as the 40B program, which require transparency, documentation and response to community feedback. The end result is clear and a positive benefit to the community.”
Gumbs describes differences between Beach Plum’s market-rate and affordable homes—cheaper appliances, outdated fixtures, and the like. (When reached for comment, Posner stated: “The amenities are consistent across all units and top-of-the-line.”)
She also tells me that her market-rate neighbor’s garage currently sits on her affordable property.
Unlike the market-rate residents, who were given the opportunity to view their homes before signing a purchase agreement, Gumbs asserts that she was not. When she did her walk-through, she found that someone else’s garage was on her lot, and an easement was on the side of her house, meaning that her neighbors had access to that land and could walk across it at any time. “At that point,” Gumbs says, “our purchase and sale had already been signed. Everything was done.” (In an e-mail to AIR MAIL, Posner stated: “All residents have an opportunity to view their home before purchase.”)
“He thinks he has done so much for Nantucket, while screwing the Nantucketers over.”
In order to squeeze 40 units onto the Beach Plum lot, the developers opted to supply only the market-rate units with garages, which was reflected in the original plan they showed to Nantucket’s Zoning Board. But at the 11th hour, after it had already been approved, the developers allegedly changed their placement—rather than putting these garages on the properties where they belonged, they moved them onto the affordable units.
One resident was missing her front yard. Another was missing his backyard. A third had “the garage for the community” placed on her property, says Gumbs. According to the Zoning Board town minutes from February 1, 2018, Gumbs herself has a handicapped child whose needs could not be met given the presence of the garage on her property.
When reached for comment, Posner stated: “Every lot in Beach Plum is different, creating the look and feel of a quirky village that evolved over time like other historic parts of Nantucket…. All easements are transparently communicated to all buyers in advance so they know exactly what they are buying.” When it comes to the garages, he stated: “Decision [sic] about where to build garages were made based on buyer preferences and space availability after initial zoning, in accordance with the rules.”
“The optics of that are that there are two classes of people,” says Dennis Murphy, the lawyer for Nantucket Land Council. “There’s the rich guy who gets a garage. And because it doesn’t fit on his property, he gets to put it on his poor neighbor, who doesn’t get to use the garage that’s on his own property.”
The Beach Plum controversy was, for the most part, contained to a certain eco-system on the island. But a much larger, more contentious development has since been brought forward by Posner and Feeley.
The Surfside Crossing project, which could begin construction as soon as July, utilizes 40B—the same law that allowed them to build Beach Plum Village—to turn what should be a six-lot, six-house development under Nantucket zoning rules into a 156-condominium development with 18 three-story buildings, so long as 25 percent of those units, 39 in total, are affordable. That leaves 117 market-rate units for the developers to turn a profit on.
The Surfside Crossing Web site states that those units are “designed to target the $500,000 to $1.5M price point that is currently underserved, in order to meet the needs and interests of Nantucket’s middle-income community.”
Jeff Allen, the Nantucket firefighters’ union president, says: “Who is going to be able to afford to live there?”
On April 18, the town agreed to drop the lawsuit it had brought forth against the Surfside Crossing developers. The Nantucket Select Board and the developers released a joint statement saying they had come to an agreement in which, among other things, 75 percent of the units would be reserved for year-round residents.
The Select Board made its decision after being presented with a document, a copy of which was obtained exclusively by AIR MAIL. The document, written by Posner, Feeley, and several town officials, states: “To be clear – this isn’t going to be free. The developers are clear on making the return permitted under 40B.”
The Select Board was seemingly convinced, as reflected in their decision to adopt the conditions laid out in the letter—without consulting the Zoning Board, which first heard about the dropped lawsuit in the Nantucket Current. (An e-mail sent to AIR MAIL on behalf of the Town Manager states: “The Select Board made the decision to withdraw the appeal taking into consideration the best interests of the Town and its residents.”)
“The middle class, despite us tolerating crappy basement apartments or crappy homes, [are] not … able to apply for affordable housing.”
On Facebook, comments on the Nantucket Current’s post about the dropped Surfside Crossing lawsuit were searing: “Has anyone seen worse negotiators than the Select Board in giving up their only leverage against a court case and get[ting] nothing in return?” and “Money talks … and Nantucket sells itself for the 100,000,000,000 the [sic] time.”
The dispute between the Zoning Board and the Select Board over Surfside Crossing is starting to resemble the town’s decade-long conflict over geotubes installed along Nantucket’s Baxter Road by none other than Posner and Feeley. In that case, the Select Board overrode the Conservation Commission to approve the installation of the tubes in a lengthy battle that has risen to the state’s Superior Court. (Proponents—such as Posner, who happens to be the president of Siasconset Beach Preservation Fund, the organization responsible for the geotubes—claim the geotubes would help stifle erosion, while opponents argue that they’d hurt the beach’s eco-system as well as cause erosion elsewhere.)
A series of e-mails obtained by AIR MAIL between Elizabeth “Libby” Gibson, the town manager who reports to the Select Board, and Posner suggests they discussed ensuring that new members of the Conservation Commission would align with the developers’ agenda. Gibson declined to comment on this.
Talk of the Town
Surfside Crossing has been Nantucket’s most controversial housing development in decades.
An early town meeting to discuss the project, held in August of 2018, had to be rescheduled and moved to the local high-school auditorium to accommodate all of the people who showed up. Of the 700-plus attendees, Tucker Holland, the municipal-housing director, told the Daily Beast, “If there were a dozen people there in support of the project out of the 700 or 800, I would be surprised.”
It remains the subject of two more lawsuits, one from the Land Council and the other from Tipping Point, a group formed in opposition to the project and made up largely of year-round residents.
The controversy has also spread off-island, where, given Nantucket’s reputation for attracting rich and powerful summer residents and harboring ever increasing real-estate values, the reigning narrative has simply been that a NIMBY sentiment is driving the controversy—wealthy residents don’t want affordable housing cropping up in their neighborhoods.
“The optics are that there are two classes of people. There’s the rich guy who gets a garage. And because it doesn’t fit on his property, he gets to put it on his poor neighbor.”
The town’s private developers have supported this narrative. “Most people on the island think affordable housing is the No. 1 problem facing it,” Posner told the Daily Beast when interviewed for a story titled “Housing Project for Non-Billionaires Makes Waves in Nantucket.” He continued: “And yet these attempts to try to do something about it usually have one tragic flaw: They are next door to somebody.”
The reality is much more complicated, and pits Nantucket’s lower-income residents less against their high-income counterparts than against a small but powerful group of private developers whose efforts to turn a profit—often at the expense of lower-income residents, as well as the island’s natural resources—have, according to some residents, gone too far.
Bats Out of Hell
In order to begin development on Surfside Crossing, which was set to be built on forest land, Posner and Feeley needed to get a sign-off from the state’s Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program.
It was decided that the developers would have to purchase 20 acres somewhere else on the island that could be used as habitat for an endangered moth species that would be killed if the lot were cleared. The developers were ultimately able to strike a deal to pay $650,000 instead of preserving the 20 acres.
This is when the Nantucket Land Council, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the island’s natural resources, appealed the Heritage Species Program’s decision on the grounds that it didn’t consider another endangered species they believed lived on the Surfside Crossing property: the northern long-eared bat.
Some residents scoffed at the appeal. “When did we talk about bats before this project?,” Andrew Vorce, the planning director on Nantucket, says. “Are we building bat houses other places to protect them? Doesn’t that feel a little bit contrived?”
Others on the island seemed to legitimately care about the bats. Take Danielle O’Dell, who is a wildlife-research ecologist at the Nantucket Conservation Foundation. “Well,” she says, “that’s a depressing and completely uneducated comment from our esteemed town planner.”
The species of bat in question is state-listed as “endangered” in Massachusetts, and, until recently, was federally listed as “threatened” with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. After allegedly being denied access by Posner and Feeley to survey the Surfside Crossing property for the bat, the Land Council asked neighbors for permission to set up echo-locaters on their properties, and the bats were positively located on-site this way.
The Land Council was granted standing in their appeal but ultimately lost the case. The decision “was very disheartening for us,” says Emily Molden, the executive director of the Nantucket Land Council. According to O’Dell, “this fringe population is one of the last” remaining habitats for this bat species.
“When did we talk about bats before this project?”
New rules for the northern long-eared bat to be federally classified as “endangered” were expected to be released on January 30. Then, on Saturday, January 28, just two days before those new regulations would go into effect, the developers came in and began cutting down the trees in the Surfside Crossing lot. (The classification change was eventually postponed until March 31.)
This was “absolutely a result of trying to cut down all the trees before any new regulations were put in place from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” argues Molden. (Feeley responded to AIR MAIL’s request for comment stating: “Trees were trimmed during that period.... Our permits and the courts determined that this site was NOT bat habitat.”)
The clearing began at seven A.M. Given that it was a weekend, the courts were going to be closed for two full days. Neighbors quickly gathered in protest, but nothing could be done to stop it, because they had the necessary permits from all government agencies involved.
“Unfortunately, development kind of rules on Nantucket,” says Jeff Allen, “and oftentimes people’s hands are tied.”
Not Your Average NIMBY
While most of the town’s departments report to Libby Gibson, the town manager, the Planning & Land Use Services (PLUS) department, overseen by Nantucket’s Planning and Economic Development Commission, is outside her control. “They are almost, like, self-governing,” says Alan Noll, who spent 25 years in Nantucket’s Building Department, even once serving as the interim head.
In 2008, with Nantucket scrambling under economic pressures, the town began consolidating many of its government offices, and the Building Department, Planning and Zoning Department, and Historic District Commission were combined to form the PLUS Department.
“I worked in two other towns,” says Roberto Santamaria, the health director. “Every town had their quirks. This town’s is the PLUS department.”
“I personally feel that … the people who are in that inner sanctum of that office are dangerous to the town,” says Diane Holdgate, the former chairman of Nantucket’s Historical Commission. (“Dangerous to the Town’?? Silly,” Vorce responded, when reached for comment.) And while small-town squabbles—or “quirks,” as Santamaria puts it—are common everywhere, Holdgate and several other people I interviewed for this story were specifically concerned about the pro-development agenda of PLUS. (Vorce stated in an e-mail to AIR MAIL: “Depending on who made the claim and how it was made it is either slander or libel to say that I have a ‘pro-development’ agenda. I don’t.”)
“There is a level of bureaucratic fuckery that happens … because of the amount of money here,” Santamaria says.
For now, plans for the Surfside Crossing development are proceeding, though one member of the Zoning Board who wished to remain anonymous said that the board is hoping to re-open the lawsuit against Posner and Feeley.
Jim Mondani, an alternate member of the Zoning Board, echoes many of the concerns of the Nantucket residents I spoke to for this story. In terms of what the 40B zoning laws mean for the future of the island, he is worried that Posner and Feeley’s playbook “kind of sets the roadmap for all developers” to follow a similar path, circumventing the desires of the community.
He adds, “We are truly left on an island on this one.”
With Memorial Day approaching, Nantucket will soon welcome back its ultra-wealthy seasonal residents. Hydrangeas will be pruned, shutters reopened, and red Jeep Wranglers parked on bustling Main Street, distracting from the tensions underneath—and the bulldozers breaking ground at Surfside Crossing.
“There are a lot of half-hearted efforts and half-truths” on Nantucket, says Sunny Daily, the midwife, “and it all revolves around money.”