Nantucket - an Island with million dollar homes: the extremes of spatial equilibrium
by Iva Todorova
Nantucket is an island around 50km off from Massachusetts. The permanent population is just over 10 000 people. Its gray, up to two-storey high wooden houses look more like haunted shacks than like the American dream home. Walking down the narrow, cobblestone streets one might occasionally encounter an elderly couple, and rarely any cars. There are two grocery stores, a few family restaurants, several tiny-tiny shops on the main street, two banks, and… that’s about it. No mass-production factories, giant malls, crowded clubs, McDonalds or Burger King, not even Starbucks. Yet, in 2011 Nantucket had the highest housing prices among US counties, the only place where a typical home sold for over $1 million. There also is no trend for a decline in prices , despite the crisis.
What explanation can economic geography provide? According to the spatial equilibrium theory, house prices are determined in the labor and housing market. The major factors explaining rental-rate differences among regions are wage differentials, region-specific amenities, and peoples’ mobility.
Nantucket hosts two types of economic agents: the incredibly rich and the workers providing services for them. The preferences of the incredibly rich are shaped by first geography and cumulative causation. Nantucket rose to prominence in the 19th century as a port midway between New York and Boston. It was also a major whaling spot, bringing vast incomes to whaling ship owners. Ever since, ocean transport has declined, and the spread of electricity rendered whale-oil candles redundant. Yet, the centrality of the island did not wane. One explanation, given by a Nantucket resident, is that the rich simply enjoy being around other rich people. Thus, the flow of successful families has followed a non-linear growth, where ever more of the wealthy are attracted to the island.
Furthermore, the concentration of high-income families led to the development of services catering to their needs. Today, Nantucket has two yacht clubs, several golf clubs and an airport where private jets drop off their owners. It offers a number of high-end restaurants, gourmet food stores, boutique designer shops and quality jewelries. Thus, site-specific amenities, in the form of concentration of rich people and services for them, have boosted the demand for housing, and bid up rents.
Other explanatory factors are mobility and the wage levels. Most island inhabitants do not earn their income there – they are either summer residents or retirees. Therefore, people’s mobility is less limited: they are either there temporarily, or do not work any longer, thus have a lower opportunity cost of relocating. Second, the local wage is irrelevant for them; what matters is their mainland income or savings. Money is likely to be increasingly concentrated in the hands of the very same Nantucket residents, given the rising US wealth and inequality.
Similar reasoning applies to local workers servicing the rich. For them, first and foremost, relative wages have increased substantially, due to the limited local labor supply, the high-value added of services, the high willingness to pay by the rich, and the specific skills required. Moreover, due to the good quality indivisible public goods supplied to the rich, workers benefit as an externality. Finally, given that many workers are low-skilled tourist sector laborers and immigrants, they are quite mobile.
Thus, housing demand has been progressively increasing. Supply, on the other hand, is severely limited. On the one hand, there is a natural limit of construction in an enclosed space. On the other hand, the island authorities put strong restrictions on the initiation of new construction, extensions, building size, height and design.
Thus, via the combined force of history, concentration, mobility and natural limits to expansion, the spatial equilibrium model provides insight as to why Nantucket offers the most expensive houses in the United States.