Soundings : Twelve-acre people sanctuary
The lawns are greening up, the trees are leafing out, and the kids are riding bikes and playing ball at Morgan Woods in Edgartown, where just last June the first tenants began moving in and the largest affordable housing project of its kind ever undertaken on Martha's Vineyard first began to fulfill its promise.
Property manager Jessica Burgoyne has been busy this month with paperwork as the tenants who took up residence last summer are renewing leases for a second year. No statistic speaks more pointedly to the early success of Morgan Woods than the low level of tenant churn: "In the first year," Ms. Burgoyne says, "three units turned over, and now at lease renewal there are two that didn't renew."
This doesn't raise much hope for the people whose names fill 12 lists - organized around four income tiers and three apartment sizes - waiting for apartments to come open at Morgan Woods. It does speak well for the launch of a project that even its most fervent advocates admit was a step into uncharted territory for Martha's Vineyard.
Morgan Woods comprises 60 rental units on 12 acres of town land, arranged in three clusters around those open common areas where Ms. Burgoyne is so happy to see the grass coming in. The project occupies one corner of a 177-acre parcel that Edgartown had the foresight to acquire in 1998. When the Martha's Vineyard Commission approved Morgan Woods in August of 2004, the written decision praised it as "a good example of smart growth" and concluded, "This proposal addresses an important need on Martha's Vineyard for affordable housing, is well-designed, and its negative impacts have been reduced or mitigated as much as is reasonably possible."
In the run-up to construction, Alan Gowell and Fred B. "Ted" Morgan chaired the committee planning the project for Edgartown. Both say one of their best decisions was to hire The Community Builders (TCB), the nation's largest nonprofit developer of mixed-income community housing, to build the $16-million project.
Says Mr. Gowell: "I think we can characterize Morgan Woods as a complete success. We rented these units much faster than we thought we would. We have had an amazingly low rate of turnover. And the people we talk to are very happy to be living there. We have a real sense of community out there - you can see that when you drive through in the evening and see neighbors socializing with each other or sitting on their front porches.
"But one of the most interesting aspects of Morgan Woods, I think - one that reflects well on the planning as well as the tenant selection by TCB - is that when you drive through during working hours, there are almost no cars. Everyone is at work. That is, after all, what we wanted. So that part of this project's promise is coming true."
Says Ms. Burgoyne: "I wish I could give you my rent roll to read - you would just applaud, because it's such a great cross-section of the community."
Meanwhile, the people at work on housing solutions for Martha's Vineyard have been watching, alert for lessons to be learned. There's nothing like the reality-check of actually building something and seeing how it works, and Morgan Woods is no exception.
As it turns out, Morgan Woods in operation as a new Island neighborhood is very nearly everything its planners could have hoped for. The lessons learned fall into the category of quibbles, not deal-breakers; mostly, they involve the finer points of how the project was tuned to meet the community's needs.
The 60 units at Morgan Woods include 33 two-bedroom, 19 three-bedroom, and 8 single-bedroom apartments. Looking back, Mr. Gowell says, "We were surprised by the tremendous need for one-bedroom units. Our waiting list for that category has been as long as 70 people."
The Morgan Woods apartments are organized by income tiers, with rents set for tenants earning 30 percent, 60 percent, 110 percent and 140 percent of the area median income. In hindsight, Mr. Gowell says, perhaps the plan should have included an increment between the 60 and 110 levels; that's an awfully big interval, and an 80 percent tier would have been nice. But he quickly adds:
"We hired a lot of people to give us advice. And at the end of the day, you don't begin to build a project like this until you're sure you can make your mortgage payments at the end of the project. That has driven a certain amount of the rents we charge there: the numbers have to work. Some people wish they could live for even less than they do there - but don't we all wish that?"
(Mr. Gowell's implicit point is an important one: Affordable housing doesn't make life on Martha's Vineyard easy for year-round folks; it merely makes it possible.)
Ted Morgan, who learned by watching a selectmen's meeting on cable TV that the town planned to name this project after him, couldn't be more proud to be associated with. "I think the way this project came out is outstanding," he says. "It was a fantastic job overall."
When Mr. Morgan reflects on his accomplishments in decades of public life and tries to put Morgan Woods in that context, he says: "It's probably at the top of my list. When you think of the desperation of the people moving from place to place, who couldn't find year-round rentals and couldn't afford to purchase anything. Then when you look at the way it was done and how it looks today - it's got to be at the top of the list."
As Morgan Woods begins its second year, Jess Burgoyne still can look out her office window and pick out the occasional first-time visitor. "Even to this day," she says, "you can always tell when someone is driving through Morgan Woods for the first time. Their jaws drop. I really enjoy that."