Life on the Rock: A resilient future by intention, not chance

By Steve Ulvi, Journal contributor

After soldiering along to help with affordable housing here, I am disheartened by our “short fingers in deep pockets” and tendency to be distracted by shiny things of far lesser importance. The only bright spots are the tenacious housing activists, bold non-profits, donors and the god-send of the real estate excise tax passed on the second try in 2018; the most obvious win-win tax measure one may ever see on a ballot.

So close, incomprehensible really. Many realtors and others who flip properties for a living, blew smoke up the nether regions of many gullible voters. And now the curtain has been pulled back on national association realtors snookering sellers, blocking the use of listing services and inflating commissions. Anti-trust! Here, agents also denigrated the REET as off-putting to buyers while they benefitted from sales commissions much larger than the modest tax we sought for affordable housing.

Then we have the self-aggrandizing business owners who conflate personal wealth-taking with community well-being, while their employees work three jobs and stand in line at the Food Bank. There is the ingrained fuzzy thinking of some in positions of influence, and many more addicted to the summer gusher of hollow tourist dollars, to make theirs while the rest of us endure all the negative economic externalities. What happened to that Destination Management Plan, anyway?

Beyond NIMBYism, land use decisions are increasingly contentious, even when distinct social benefits are obvious. Dreamy aesthetic ideals from the 1990s may scuttle the smart Bailer Hill Microgrid project that can buffer peak usage interruptions in electrical service and improve marginal, dry, rocky pasture to boot.

When one looks at modern challenges, as well as quirky island hoops and hurdles, it appears that serious commitment resembles the upper Mississippi River; a mile wide and a foot deep. Small steps of progress in constructing affordable units while the economically crippling shortfall grows. The town has identified the need for many hundreds of worker housing units while the private acreage in the Urban Growth Area annexed over a decade ago for housing development, sprouts weeds.

Demands after permitting to force the Home Trust to raise funds for outrageously expensive sidewalk, curbs and lights at Holliwalk boggle the mind. This is a blatant lack of imagination and leadership. We are wallowing in turbulent waters and need to declare a public housing emergency, attract private investors, incentivize efforts and reduce all bureaucratic barriers to low-income housing. Yesterday.

Where the hell are the big philanthropists, the deal makers? We should steal freely from global ideas, seek funds regionally and build coalitions locally to redirect community growth toward stability and resilience for the difficult times ahead. Think about 1,500 or more new residents with families; inhabiting many hundreds of permanently affordable rentals and houses in the UGA and scattered here and there, employed in new start-up businesses, home building, tech and services with year around wages, trades, cottage industries, eating out and hundreds more kids in schools and far more island dollar circulation than free-for-all tourist invasions.