Soundings: Bad process, good outcome

Soundings: Bad process, good outcome

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When a good thing happens at an inopportune moment, in an unfortunate way, it’s still a good thing. A recent case in point: The chain of events that triggered the transition of rental assistance (RA), a program of the Regional Housing Authority (RHA), from private to public funding.

One year ago, the six Island towns faced an emergency request to boost their support for rental assistance, after the Island Affordable Housing Fund abruptly announced, just days before the November 2009 checks were due to landlords across the Vineyard, that it was broke. Every town pitched in, and this money (together with a largely unheralded private gift from Bob and Fran Clay) carried rental assistance through April, the tenth month of the fiscal year.

In May and June of 2010, some RA tenants made extra payments to their landlords, and some landlords went without the portion of their rents traditionally paid by the Housing Authority. About a month ago, the housing fund quietly made a $20,000 payment to the rental program, retiring its legacy debt for May. On Monday of this week the fund board voted to authorize payment for June.

Remarkably, at the end of this traumatic year, it’s possible to report that not a single RA family lost its rental because of the financial meltdown at the housing fund. And looking forward, the Regional Housing Authority is positioned to continue this vital program, with support from all six Island towns.

Some quick facts about rental assistance: It’s a ten-year-old program, launched in 2001 to address the need for reasonably priced, year-round rentals for working households on the Island. Participating tenants must be able to show that they are working full-time and earning no more than 80 percent of the area median income; participating landlords must accept rents within the limits set by the RHA, and they must offer their properties year-round. RA is designed as a transitional program, and the span of time spent by tenants in its subsidized rentals averages about two and a half years. RA currently operates on just over half a million dollars a year and houses some 70 Island tenants (individuals and families).

David Vigneault administers this program. He is executive director of the Regional Housing Authority and arguably the most compassionate policy wonk you could ever hope to meet. After a year in which he had to defend his program before six daunting sets of town Community Preservation Act (CPA) committees, finance boards and boards of selectmen, he has a preternatural grasp of the program, and more often answers questions with a spreadsheet than with a sound bite.

But when I asked Mr. Vigneault last week about the difficult year the Housing Authority has just experienced, he quickly deflected the question: “I’m older, by far, after what we’ve been through; this was a real test. But look, I’m just the administrator. Imagine being a tenant or a landlord and reading this in the newspaper — being told, going into the holidays, that the subsidy my family is relying on, or the rental income my family is relying on, is maybe not there.”

It’s fortunate for everyone concerned that the RHA had begun reaching out to the Island towns in the years before the housing fund’s moment of crisis. When the RHA found itself scrambling for funds a year ago, officials in every Island town were already knowledgeable about the rental assistance program — in fact, they were already covering about half the program’s costs.

Even for the staunchest foe of things regional, the Regional Housing Authority is an agency that’s difficult to dislike. Under Mr. Vigneault’s leadership, the RHA has doubled the number of rentals under its management over the past five years from 100 to about 200 units, while boosting its office staff by just half of one employee. The RHA is functioning so efficiently, in fact, that in the past few years it has cut its fees for managing rental properties by half.

Now, consider the new footing the RHA finds itself upon, as it looks ahead to the fiscal year that begins this July. The agency has met with the CPA committees of the six Island towns, and with finance committees and selectmen and whoever else wanted to join the discussion, and now has a budget it can count on to carry the rental assistance program for the next 18 months. The Regional Housing Authority can concentrate on doing its work well, without worrying about whether next summer’s wine and cheese receptions raise enough to pay the rents.

The Island Affordable Housing Fund deserves credit, in the end, for the $2.8 million it raised over nine years to support the rental assistance program. The way that relationship ended was ugly. But the way the Island towns have stepped up to support this essential community program is something we can all view with pride.

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