Can peer pressure save Nantucket?

I ran a little survey this past week. 60 people responded. The goal was not to find out what people’s opinions are on housing, but instead to understand how people feel about those who sell their homes and the choices they make. Here’s the rather purposefully round-a-bout hypothetical question:

Let’s say you have an older neighbor. A hypothetical neighbor. Don’t think of anyone specific. They die and they leave their home on Nantucket to their only child. A few weeks after the funeral, there is a knock on your door. It’s the child of your former neighbor. They are in their mid-40s, give or take. They have not decided what to do with the house. They ask your opinion. It’s strange, you’ve never met them before, but you want to be polite. You talk about all of their options. Move into it, rent it year-round, rent it seasonally, sell it and use the money, leave it empty. You try not to give them any advice, or push them in any direction. Instead, you just talk about the options and the benefits of each choice to that person. After the conversation, they thank you for your time and leave. What do you think this person will do with the house after that conversation?

• Move into it 
• Rent it out year-round 
• Rent it out seasonally 
• Sell it and use the money after taxes 
• Leave it empty, except for occasional personal vacations 

The questionnaire is purposefully vague and leaves out a lot of the information one would need to make a decision of this kind. My goal: understand what our feelings are about our neighbors. We all know we need more year-round housing on this island. No one denies that. We all have friends and family members who are harmed by the current housing crisis. And yet, we also understand human nature to some extent, and we know that the economic forces on Nantucket are compelling. So, not surprisingly, when asked what would this hypothetical 40-something do, here’s how the responses shook out:

Here’s the data:

Sell it 41.67%
Rent it seasonally 35.00%
Rent it year-round 16.67%
Leave it empty 5.00%
Move into it 1.67%

What conclusions can we draw from this?

Even though we likely all feel we would at least try to do the right thing for the community when faced with this situation, most of us feel others would not. Most of us believe the other guy would do the selfish thing. Go for the cash. Make a big score. 

Why do we feel this way? Because the actual numbers indicate it’s basically true. 

If you take these percentages and apply them to an average number of real estate transactions per year (450) for the next five years, we see the same thing that has happened over the past five years: The number of seasonal homes increases while the total number of year-round homes declines. It’s a loss of a bit under 1% a year or slightly over 8% in a decade. That correlates with what’s been happening here for the past decade or so. 

Maybe we have uncovered something unseen here, or maybe it’s just a coincidence. Correlation does not equal causality. But it’s worth understanding either way.

My question: is the problem we face the result of the actions of the few people who sell each year, or is it actually tied to the community’s expectations for them. I wonder what would happen if we applied a little public peer pressure and held our neighbors accountable for the well-being of the community and not just their own bottom line. Could we do better?

There’s plenty of evidence that people’s behavior will change if they feel others are watching them. It’s been documented in hundreds of studies.  

It’s an idea. And we should talk about it.