Sometimes the juxtaposition of two appar ently unrelated stories provides more incisive commentary than the best editorial or op-ed. Take the front page of last Friday’s Vineyard Gazette.
Just below the fold we have a follow up on the story that’s been the talk of several towns: “Heroin Bust Casts a Spotlight on Island Addiction Problems.” The story surmises that if people are dealing heroin on Martha’s Vineyard, then people must also be using heroin on Martha’s Vineyard. And that if a significant dealership gets busted, then its customers must be going without, at least temporarily. Dr. Timothy Tsai, director of emergency medicine at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, noted that after a big bust often more people show up at the ER with withdrawal symptoms. If someone comes in and asks for help with his or her addiction, said Dr. Tsai, they will get the treatment they need. “But they have to want to get better. They have to want help,” he said.
Just above the fold we have “Island Economic Outlook Darkens, as Land Bank Revenues Drop Sharply.” The story explains that Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank revenues have dropped because less real estate is changing hands, and for less money. James Lengyel, land bank executive director, is quoted as saying: “It’s not just the revenue change that matters. The transaction numbers are very important, and a 20 per cent change says something.”
Mr. Lengyel did not elucidate this “something,” but reporter Mike Seccombe helpfully provides a translation in the next sentence: “What it says is trouble.”
The connection between these decreases, in value and in number of transactions, and the Island’s economic outlook is not laid out in so many words. Why should it be? Doesn’t everybody already know that the Island’s economic outlook and the health of the real estate industry are so inextricably entwined that it’s pointless to even try to distinguish one from the other?
Here’s where the juxtaposition of apparently unrelated stories produces an unexpected but fruitful insight. The land bank and the clients of the busted heroin dealers have something in common: Their sources are drying up. They’re both facing withdrawal.
The land bank isn’t what comes first to mind when one hears the word addict. I love the land bank. I moved here year round in 1985. The land bank was founded in 1986. I’ve been walking on land bank properties almost as long as I’ve lived here. For years I participated in the land bank’s annual cross-Island walk. Without the land bank, my rambling routes would be fewer, shorter, and less varied. Did I say I love the land bank?
The land bank is funded by a two per cent assessment on most real estate transactions. This is where things start getting a little dicey. When lots of real estate changes hands for lots of money, land bank revenues go up. The land bank buys more properties. I have more places to walk. However, when lots of real estate changes hands for lots of money, renters like me also have fewer places to live, and we have to pay more to live in whatever quarters we find. When real estate prices are booming, I have more places to walk, but fewer places to live. When real estate prices slip and mortgages still need to be paid, I have more rental options but the land bank has to tighten its belt.
People who own property like high real estate prices. If they decide to sell, they get more money. If they don’t want to sell, they can borrow more money for whatever they need. But it’s high real estate prices that have been driving working people and young families off the Island. High real estate prices helped kill Wintertide Coffeehouse, an institution to which I was devoted and which I still miss worse than any of my dead relatives. High real estate prices are what make it so hard to find anything useful on Main street (Vineyard Haven or Edgartown) or Circuit avenue: high rents favor businesses with big margins and rapid inventory turnover. And it’s high real estate prices that make monkeys of all the earnest people who support the locally grown movement and talk about the rural character of the Island. When land goes for $300,000 an acre, just how feasible is farming? (Farming that supports the farmer, that is; not farming that must be supported by the farmer’s trust fund or rich spouse.) When a 10 or 20-acre parcel of farmable land comes on the market, who’s most likely to meet the asking price: a farmer, a developer or a hedge fund executive in search of his fourth home?
But falling real estate prices are treated in the local press as an unmitigated disaster, while the arrest of six heroin dealers is viewed as an unmitigated triumph for law, order and the health of the community. The breakup of a heroin dealership makes life very difficult for the heroin addict, but no one suggests that the addict’s distress justifies putting the heroin dealers back on the street. Addicts in withdrawal are urged to seek help.
It’s long past time for the Vineyard to do likewise. High real estate prices make us giddy, they make us complacent and they impair our judgment; they’re destroying our community, but we can’t see it because most of us are one way or another hooked on the drug. Denial, as they say, is not just a river in Egypt. And the first step toward recovery is admitting we have a problem.
Susanna Sturgis lives in West Tisbury and has just published a book titled The Mud of the Place.