By Tatiana Sokolova, MEM/MBA ‘24
This article was written in response to a seminar given by Vincent Murphy, Coastal Resilience Coordinator, Town of Nantucket, MA, in an EDGE Seminar at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business in Spring 2023. This article voices one student’s perspective and does not necessarily represent the views of either Duke University or the seminar speaker.
By the end of the century, climate change will lead to sea level rise that could cause damage worth up to 20% of the global gross domestic product (GDP), or up to $14.2 trillion. Vincent Murphy, Sustainability Manager for the Town of Nantucket came to speak with Duke students about how his coastal town could see $3.4 billion worth of this damage alone due to flooding and erosion by 2070. To keep this damage at bay, Murphy stated there were three basic adaptation strategies:
- Accommodate: anticipate where damage could happen and move property out of harm’s way, such as raising a home on stilts
- Protect: keep damage from happening by putting up barriers, such as a bulkhead or a rock revetment wall
- Retreat: move the entire property away from harm’s way, such as rebuilding the home further inland
The latter of which, Murphy stated, is the only real answer for the properties most affected by flooding and erosion.
However, the coastal homes most affected by rising sea levels belong to some of the wealthiest of the community, which boasts a median household income 52.9% greater than the national average. Additionally, Murphy highlighted that the owners of these coastal properties are generally part-time residents who leave their properties abandoned for 9 months of the year. Some owners even simply use these coastal residences as investment properties until they are served a demolition order, after which they invest in properties more inland. With the upper class migrating inland to escape the rising tides, the middle and lower class that primarily lives inland faces increasing threats of displacement. Amid these environmental justice implications, the Town of Nantucket is evaluating the utilization of national, state, and local-level grants and funding programs for coastal resilience and sustainability projects that mostly protect expensive coastal residencies.
While I agree with the importance of protecting Nantucket’s “one-of-a-kind character,” I believe that public funding should not be the first order of defense, especially when it disproportionately benefits wealthy homeowners who do not reside in the Town for the majority of the year. Instead, I believe the Town of Nantucket should apply their own adaptation model to how they handle the residencies of the Town by:
- Acommodating only full-time residents and wealthy part-time owners who are willing to invest their own dollars into protecting their vacation homes,
- Protecting low-income residents from the effects of displacement, and
- As a last resort, encouraging retreats to outside the borders of the Town with opportunities to still give back to the Town’s preservation.
Accommodate full-time residents
In Nantucket, it is clear that the properties at greatest immediate risk of being impacted by climate change are the beach-front properties that are owned by people who do not dedicate much of their time to living in the Town nor whose livelihoods rely on the preservation of the Town itself. Thus, the Town of Nantucket should re-prioritize their public funding to longer-term projects that serve to protect the homes of the full-time residents who live further inland and whose livelihoods depend on the preservation of the Town. This could be, for instance, a requirement that residents live at their Nantucket residence for over 270 days of the year and/or an expectation for their W-2 employer to have an address within the Town and County of Nantucket. For the wealthy residents who do want to invest their own dollars into protecting the property they do not live at for most of the year, the Town of Nantucket should work with these residents in public-private partnerships that limit use of public funding while ensuring the wealthy residents are following conditions set by local authorities to avoid the issue that recently occurred in Siasconset.
Protect those without the means to adapt or re-locate
While Nantucket’s poverty rate is at 7.15%, which is below the national average of 12.03%, the island’s median home price is $2.7 million, which is cost-prohibitive to 90% of Nantucket’s year-round residents. The Town’s current “subsidized housing stock comprises less than 10 percent of the island’s total real estate,” which requires a median family income of no more than $67,750, yet 38.3% of residents currently fit that demographic. Thus, the true number of residents that are effectively below the poverty-line is over one-third of the full-time resident population. Should the Town of Nantucket want to preserve their community, public funding and resources must be pooled towards creating more affordable housing that is protected from gentrification and sea level rise for the third of their residents without ample means to adapt or re-locate. The best way to create this affordable housing is for the Town to take the example of cities like Dallas and Berlin by purchasing homes in the area and making them state-owned with a resident income cap. This restriction would ensure that the full-time residents of the Town have enough affordable housing while keeping the upper class from pricing these residents out of the Town and destroying the integrity of the community. Additionally, should future needs for resiliency projects arise, the government would be able to move much faster in protecting their own property than getting buy-in from all residents had those properties been privately-owned.
Retreat elsewhere to preserve integrity
With the above-mentioned protections in place for full-time and low-income residents, it is likely that owners playing in the luxury market of Nantucket properties will run out of properties to seize. Due to the Town’s protections, they will likely be forced to retreat outside of town (to likely one of their other many homes) when their properties receive demolition orders to keep their properties from falling into the ocean due to erosion. With these demolition orders, the Town could incentivize former owners to continue investing their dollars into the community by providing private tours of historic landmarks, education sessions on the ecosystems of the island, benefit dinners, and other touristy or fun events to encourage day trips to the Town of Nantucket and donations outside of those trips. If these former owners are still particularly passionate about having waterfront property in or near the Town of Nantucket, they could also simply invest their millions in a home that will not be affected by erosion or flooding, such as a yacht or houseboat.
Preserving what matters most
To the Duke community, Murphy stated that “we cannot quantify the cost of saving our communities.” However, we can ensure that the cost of living in our communities is affordable to all. If this Town is truly worth $3.4 billion dollars to save, let the Town ensure that investments go towards those who contribute the most to local community livelihood and who most need protecting.
 Newburger, Emma. “Coastal flooding could hit nearly 20% of global GDP as climate change accelerates storms, sea level rise”. CNBC. July 2020.
 Town of Nantucket. “Nantucket Coastal Resilience Plan”. November 2021.
 Miles, Tiya. “Nantucket Doesn’t Belong to the Preppies,” The Atlantic. August 2021.
 Town of Nantucket. “Nantucket Coastal Resilience Plan”. November 2021.
 Noor, Dharna. “Nantucket homeowners group agrees to remove their hotly contested erosion shield”. Boston Globe. January 2023.
 Vermeer, Dan. Case Study: “Navigating Sea Level Rise in Nantucket.” Unpublished case. Fuqua School of Business, Duke University, 2023.
 Shugerman, Emily. “Housing Project for Non-Billionaires Makes Waves in Nantucket”. The Daily Beast. January 2023.
 “Understanding Affordable Housing on Nantucket”. Housing Nantucket. March 2021.
 Income of Nantucket, U.S. Census Bureau.
 Berg, Nate. “The Radical Way Cities are Tackling Affordable Housing”. Fast Company. April 2021.