What’s new in affordable housing a decade later? IHT, that’s what


In November of 2009, we reported that the Island Affordable Housing Fund (IAHF) had financial problems that would prevent it from meeting some of its obligations, in particular longstanding annual support for the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority’s rental assistance program.

IAHF, which had supported the rental program to the tune of $2.64 million since 2001, had experienced a significant drop in donations, including donor pledges that were not fulfilled. Other commitments, including contracts for the construction of the 250 State Road housing project and the Bradley Square project in Oak Bluffs would be challenged. The former was ultimately completed successfully; the latter has now been abandoned, although its debt service lives on.

Ironically, the near collapse of IAHF, which continues to struggle, was a warning signal that the affordable housing effort, which had begun with great energy, dedication, informality, and confusion at the beginning of the decade — and accomplished a lot — was flagging. The need had persisted, but changed also. The global, national, and Island economies had changed. The chief movers in the housing effort had changed and would change further. And, just as the effort got off the ground without a carefully developed plan, the changes occurred without broad and deep consideration of how to proceed afresh.

In December of 2005, as part of The Times’ annual solicitations of community leaders for their assessments of the year that was ending and of the promise of the year ahead, John Abrams, at the time the widely recognized leader of the affordable housing effort, wrote, “Think back to the winter of 2000, five years ago. Do you remember what was happening with affordable housing? I doubt it — the issue was only sporadically in the news. We had few good models, few functioning town affordable housing committees, no town funding, no full-time staff at the Regional Housing Authority, no Island Affordable Housing Fund, no Island Housing Trust, no Habitat for Humanity, no down-payment assistance programs, no tested deed riders to assure affordability, no rental conversion program, no house moves program, no housing developments planned on town lands.”

Mr. Abrams called 2000 a “critical turning point.” He thought 2005 was a similar and promising milestone. The 2001 Island Affordable Housing Fund’s Island-wide housing needs assessment had defined the astounding contours of the housing problem here.

“This year [2005],” Mr. Abrams wrote, “we commissioned an update [that] says that market forces are accelerating housing difficulty, but ‘The Island’s residents have made remarkable progress, creating 95 new affordable ownership opportunities, 83 year-round rentals, with another 165 units permitted, in litigation, or in construction. Much has been done, and there’s reason to hope and celebrate.'”

Mr. Abrams was hopeful then because of the work that had been done during the first half of the decade. He could not have anticipated the headwinds that would slow progress in the second half.

Still, today, hopefulness may be refreshed. The headlong effort that began the decade has given way — amidst considerable pain and embarrassment — to a more measured, disciplined, and carefully organized approach, as demonstrated by the leaders of the Island Housing Trust (IHT), which held its annual meeting Saturday.

The trust, which acknowledges that it will succeed only with powerful partnerships with town taxpayers, generous private donors, town and county governments, and other housing organizations, has nevertheless refashioned itself as an independent agency, with a board of its own, a mission of its own, a modest but sturdy business model, and a unique array of products and services that are designed to serve the community’s varied affordable housing initiatives.

IHT, led by Richard Leonard, a new board, and Philippe Jordi, a broadly capable nonprofit housing executive, has spent a year recreating itself — new bylaws defining board roles, ongoing training of board members, clarity of mission, operational and financial transparency, and a determination to align itself cooperatively with municipal actors in the affordable housing space.

It’s a sharp divorce from the early years in affordable housing, when several housing organizations shared board members, when finances were obscure, when governance issues were neglected, when the public was confused by the multiplicity and overlap of housing efforts, and when board members might be hired by the boards they served on to do the construction work.

In addition, IHT has searched for and found what it hopes will be a reliable source of income to fund its day-to-day operating life, which costs about $130,000. It’s a combination of extremely modest annual lease payments on the land where affordable housing has been built; extremely modest fees for shepherding these housing projects through development, permitting, financing, and construction phases; and extremely modest fees for data-gathering and consulting services for housing efforts that may be mounted by other entities. (By the way, the lease arrangement with the occupants of this housing also gives IHT some early warning and leverage when financial trouble besets the owners or tenants of a housing unit.)

All told, it’s a thorough and thoughtful redesign of an organization, whose endurance is central to the successful development of affordable housing in a small, changing, seasonal, remote, expensive, well-endowed in some ways and under-financed in others, community like ours.