How would you like to work for beautiful Nantucket Island? The Massachusetts tourist Mecca has a rich history and beautiful beaches. There's one problem: To buy a home in this charming community, you'll have to dish out—on average—about $1.3 million.

Because Nantucket can only be reached by ferry boat or airplane, living on the island makes more sense than commuting from the mainland. “It's a 2½-hour boat ride to get to the island,” says Jeff Willett, director of Nantucket Department of Public Works. “If there's floods, hurricanes, blizzards—or if a pumping station blows up—employees need to be here.”

The residency requirement poses a dilemma for those who maintain the island's infrastructure because their salaries can't compete with Nantucket's high cost of living. Many employees must rent, which means paying $2,500/month during the winter, and being forced to leave those dwellings when rents spike for the tourist season.

“Property owners can charge up to $2,000 a week during the summer,” explains Willett. “It's beyond the reach of our employees.”

Displaced employees bunk with family or friends until winter—and lower rents—return. Or they turn in their resignations. To remedy these problems, the department lobbied for employee housing.

The department procured a $1.6 million bond issue to build two duplexes. Scheduled to be completed by the end of the year, the two-family houses are part of a larger project to build a $45 million wastewater treatment plant. Although plant operators have first dibs at the duplexes—a recruitment incentive to staff the plant—public works employees are next in line. Willett anticipates rent to be set below market prices, and based on income and the renting employee's ability to pay.

This is Nantucket's first attempt at meeting employee housing needs. Says Willett: “It's only four units total, but it's a start.”

Obviously, note very community can offer housing to employees—or needs to. And not every community has such a clear-cut need for a residency requirement. What spurs the residency debate elsewhere is the murky question of when requirements should be enforced and when they should be lifted.

RESIDENCY AS A JOB REQUIREMENT

“Communities typically want residency so public works professionals can respond quickly in an emergency and so they truly understand the impact of the services delivered to the community,” explains Heidi Voorhees, president of management consulting firm The PAR Group. Based in Lake Bluff, Ill., the firm provides management and recruitment services to local governments nationwide.

 

Other reasons for residency requirements include:

  • Department demographics better represent community demographics
  • Employees have ties to the community
  • Taxpayer dollars stay within the community through salaries, etc.

In an exclusive PUBLIC WORKS survey on this topic, one respondent said that by initiating residency requirements his city raised real estate values, quality of life, and community self esteem. Another reason for residency requirements, he says: “The better-paying jobs should go to city residents and not to those who are unwilling to be my neighbor.”

Yet there is an argument for lifting residency requirements that could outweigh the varied reasons for mandating residency: Recruiting top talent.

As reported in our May issue (“The replacements,” page 22), the public sector is experiencing a worker shortage as baby boomers retire.

“There are 20 million fewer people in the generation following the baby boomers,” adds Voorhees. “With the talent shortage that we're seeing in public works, mandating residency requirements is the wrong direction in which to go.”

According to Voohees, making residency a job requirement makes for a very tough, if not impossible, recruitment process. “Many times candidates have told me that they are very interested in a job, but they will not apply because they cannot move their family,” she says.

The two most common reasons for a candidate's unwillingness to move, says Voorhees, are teenage children and dual incomes. “Parents are reluctant to move children who are in high school, and many families have two careers to consider. Often couples will decide where to live based on what's midway to both jobs.”

The question hiring managers must ask themselves: If an ideal candidate lives just outside city limits or in the next town over, are the anticipated benefits of requiring him or her to move worth losing that talent?