The Island population is growing. Housing stock is shrinking. The cost of living is rising. Prices are skyrocketing.

These data points are not new. But they aren’t getting better.

A recent benchmark housing needs assessment conducted by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission paints an increasingly dire picture of the Island’s housing crisis, suggesting that economic inequality has risen dramatically on the Island in the past decade while more recent factors, like the Covid-19 pandemic and the booming real estate market, have exacerbated critical housing shortages for Vineyarders.

The report was prepared by commission economic development and affordable housing planner Christine Flynn in coordination with Karen Sunnarborg Consulting.

Housing needs assessments are conducted every five to 10 years on a community-wide basis, and used by towns as a resource for regional, long-term planning and grant writing. The last assessment was done in 2013.

While unsurprising, the 2020 report, finalized late last week, provides a startling litany of data points that spell out the depth of the Island’s sweeping housing crisis. It finds that homelessness has grown, rents have risen, and affordability gaps are higher than ever — even as the Island has taken steps to mitigate the problem in the past two decades.

“The Island’s socio-economic diversity is eroding as lower income households are dwindling in number and in proportion to the population,” the report states.

The so-called affordability gap — the difference between median home prices and what the average Island family can afford — was $225,000 in 2012. In 2020, the gap grew to $735,000, a 247 per cent increase and far higher than the 13.3 per cent inflation rate during the same period.

In an interview, Ms. Flynn said growing income inequality was one of the report’s starkest data points.

“That number is staggering,” she said. “You see the gap getting wide. But just over 2020, with Covid-19, you have seen a staggering extension of that gap, getting that much wider. And I think that has made things so much more acute on the Island.”

Overall, the year-round Island population has grown by 16 per cent over the past two decades, from 14,987 to 17,312, according to census data, representing one of the highest growth rates in the state. During that period, the report says, year-round households with incomes less than $35,000 decreased by 59 per cent, while those with incomes of over $150,000 increased by 558 per cent.

The report found that a total of 724 seniors, or 31 per cent of those age 65 or older, had incomes of less than $35,000 based on 2019 census estimates. There were also 694 households in this income range with residents younger than 65. Year-round housing stock decreased by 8.3 per cent, or 603 units, over the past two decades, while seasonal housing stock increased by 15.4 per cent, or 1,428 units.

“There are significant numbers of households who have very limited financial means and are likely confronting enormous challenges affording to live on the Vineyard,” the report states.

“In 2019, the Island’s average weekly wage of $1,094 was 70 per cent of the state average and the median home price was more than double the state’s, clearly signaling the disparity between what residents can afford and existing housing costs.”

Average monthly rents have also climbed from $1,180 in 2010 to $1,459 in 2020. The number of rental units costing more than $1,500 per month jumped from 207 units in 2010 to 710 units in 2020. A quarter of all rentals cost more than $2,000 per month.

The pandemic has compounded those problems, the report found. Unemployment skyrocketed on the Island last spring, going from 501 jobless workers to 1,927 in the course of a month. By November, Dukes County still had the second highest unemployment rate in the state. Those changes occurred just as the real estate market started to boom, displacing long-term Islanders and inflating home and rental prices, according to the report.

“Covid has . . . caused a surge in home sales that are increasing sales prices considerably as more people from outside of the Island are looking for a safer retreat from the pandemic on the Vineyard,” the report said. “Those with insecure housing, who have relied on winter rentals in the past, have been outbid by more affluent families from off Island or their winter rental has been sold due to the pandemic.”

Ms. Flynn sounded a note of caution about interpreting the data on a straight line, given the thorny environmental issues on an Island under much pressure from growth and development.

In short, she said the affordable housing problem cannot be solved without first solving the issue of nitrogen overloading in ponds.

“The environment, water quality, and housing: they are all connected, particularly to sustaining our year-round economy,” Ms. Flynn said. “These issues need to be addressed more comprehensively.”

The report points to Island Housing Trust’s use of the advanced septic technology in its Greenwood avenue affordable housing project as a positive example. It also cites creative affordable housing zoning, like family lots in Chilmark, and Harbor Homes congregate housing for low-income Islanders, as steps in the right direction.

A proposal to create an Islandwide housing bank funded by a real estate transfer fee has also picked up steam in recent weeks, with a coalition forming to pitch the proposal for the 2022 legislative session. The housing bank would be an example of new municipal funding options referenced in the report.

But the Island’s affordable housing crisis continues to present far more problems than solutions. Although towns have made progress, many of the recommendations in the 2013 report ring even more true today. Those include focusing on higher-density affordable housing developments, a greater emphasis on regional solutions, and adapting zoning to allow multi-unit affordable housing in appropriate areas.

A targeted goal of building 50 new affordable units per year as part of the recent housing production plans has never been met. The pandemic has made it even harder. But Ms. Flynn said there remains hope.

“We’ve always been behind the eight ball in terms of chipping away at addressing those needs . . . and I think with Covid-19, we’re that much farther away,” she said. “Perhaps this study can be a resource.”