Mary Stephenson

I write to you today as a concerned citizen and not as a representative of any group. As we prepare for the November elections, Saint Helena is fortunate to have excellent candidates vying for City Council and for the position of Mayor. I’m not here to endorse any of them, but to express a concern that I think none seem to have adequately addressed in their campaigns to date.

There has been a lot of talk about city finances, improving infrastructure, and balancing embracing tourism with supporting our full-time residents. What I haven’t seen or heard is a serious discussion of how our critical housing needs align with priorities and plans to keep the city running and thriving.

Almost everyone, including all candidates, recognizes the existence of our housing crisis and is in favor of solving it, but I am not aware of any specific plan to generate the funds necessary to support a real housing strategy . Over the past 10 years, 16 qualified income residential units have been built in Saint Helena. During the same period, how many existing moderately priced homes have been renovated into luxury vacation homes? How does the city government respond to the need to balance all types of housing in our city so that we do not become a place for the very wealthy to live?

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As the candidates talk about the need for increased revenue to improve and maintain public services, fight climate change and attract tourist dollars to our city, I would like to see them also talk about how they hear get the revenue needed to help develop the housing needed to support all of these other efforts. At the same time, when candidates talk about maintaining our small-town character and quality of life, there doesn’t seem to be a plan or vision to add the housing needed to stem the steady decline in affordable housing for the very people who are essential either.

By my calculations, our municipal government will need to contribute approximately $20 million over the next decade to 1) balance our second homes and tourism functions with diverse housing for those who support our economy and 2) provide the additional housing needed to the approximately 1,000 people who will live in the homes we are required to build as part of our RHNA obligation.

Sound like a lot of newcomers to town? Consider this: Saint Helena lost over 428 people between 2010 and 2020, and lost another 42 in 2021 (Source: US Census). Given this trend, just to stay even over the next decade will require building the 254 housing units that RHNA needs. When working families move or cannot afford to move in, it hurts our economy not only for low-paid service workers, but also because we cannot hire medical and vineyard management staff, without talk about teachers and retail workers. A city with a declining population does not operate from a position of strength. We cannot slow this decline without a sustainable urban revenue stream for housing and an aggressive strategy to use those dollars effectively.

If you share my concern not only for the lack of housing, but also for the alleged lack of thought and action regarding how housing fits into the bigger picture of our city, please ask applicants – all – how they specifically plan to find the time and raise the necessary funds to make housing an integral part of the health of our community. We are not confronted with a situation or situation — economic prosperity or quality of life — we have the ability to achieve both. But I fail to see how either can thrive without a sustainable plan to fund, create, and preserve diverse housing options for those vital to our community.