Soundings: Housing: we get this

Soundings: Housing: we get this

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Six years ago, the agencies working from the Vineyard Housing Office in Tisbury had a ready answer to the criticism that the Island’s housing soup has too many cooks. It’s simple, they’d say: the Regional Housing Authority (RHA) manages rental properties and provides other services to the towns, from running ownership lotteries to administering accessory apartment bylaws. The Island Housing Trust (IHT) acquires land and builds housing for people who otherwise would be priced out of the market. And the Island Affordable Housing Fund (IAHF) raises the money.

This framing of the landscape from 2005 no longer applies today.

The RHA still manages rental properties, but no longer with money provided by the fund; for the past two years, the Island’s rental subsidy programs have been funded by the six Island towns from their Community Preservation Act accounts.

IHT still works in the home ownership arena, but in an effort to keep the lights on and continue with its Island projects, it has banded together with Habitat for Humanity to become its own fundraiser, organizing a concert this week at the Old Whaling Church.

The IAHF, recently relabeled as the Martha’s Vineyard Housing Fund (MHF), is in financial crisis after straying from its fundraising mission to become a developer and foundering on the failed Bradley Square project in Oak Bluffs.

We shouldn’t be surprised by shifts like these, or even by the occasional outright failure, in the first decade of something as new and as challenging as the effort to address the Vineyard’s affordable housing crisis. It’s important for us to remember the successes, too.

The Island Affordable Housing Fund, organized in the summer of 2000, funneled nearly $3 million into the rental assistance program of the RHA during its early years. The housing authority handled this money and administered this program so well that when the fund suddenly announced in late 2009 that it was broke and unable to continue its contributions, voters in the six Island towns stepped right up to support the rental program. This support, about three-quarters of a million dollars per year, has been rendered by citizens with scarcely a negative comment or opposing vote.

Clearly, the voters of Martha’s Vineyard have accepted the Regional Housing Authority as an appropriate vessel for public dollars. Just as clearly, the IAHF deserves a pat on the back for supplying the seed money that enabled RHA to prove itself and win that level of public acceptance and support.

The organization that has most suffered in terms of public acceptance and support is the housing fund, by whatever name you call it. If you feel that a complete explanation of the 2009 financial meltdown has never been forthcoming, or that today’s principals of the fund continue to be too quick to blame their difficulties on the global recession or on lack of community support for the housing issue, I’m entirely in sympathy.

If you’re in the fundraising business on Martha’s Vineyard, you’ve got lots of competition. The Vineyard’s quality of life depends heavily on a large network of nonprofits. There are so many urgently important causes and institutions whose work makes the Vineyard the great place to live that it is today. With so many potential vessels for each charitable dollar, the money tends to follow the high-functioning organization as much as it does the good cause. When donors become skittish about supporting the Martha’s Vineyard Housing Fund, that doesn’t have to mean this community suddenly doesn’t “get” the importance of the issue. Because donors want two things: They want their money to go to a good cause, and they also want it to go, to put this as bluntly as possible, to an agency that’s doing a good job.

As a group, we Vineyarders understand the housing crisis far better today than we did a decade ago. If we didn’t “get” the importance of affordable housing, these votes of support for rental assistance wouldn’t have sailed through annual town meetings for two years in a row. What voters have done, in the case of the rental program, is to cut out the middleman. Keeping scores of middle-class, working Vineyarders in affordable rentals is no longer a program dependent on this year’s Houses on the Tube or sales of goodies under the Linden Tree. We’ve decided, as a community, that rental subsidies are too important for that.

The next step is for us to decide that affordable home ownership is also too important to support with ham-and-bean suppers and to enact a Martha’s Vineyard Housing Bank to do for the Island’s human ecology what the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank has done for the physical landscape.

Finally, the need for an update of the John Ryan housing reports of 2001 and 2005 is urgent now, to inform our conversation about what has and hasn’t worked, and to focus our strategies for the second decade of housing work on Martha’s Vineyard. But sadly, when asked to chip in their town’s small contribution toward that report, the Edgartown selectmen saw another chance to kick the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and couldn’t resist. I’ve given up trying to understand the antipathy that radiates toward the MVC from town hall in Edgartown, but I can’t help but feel saddened when the selectmen’s vote hurts everyone, including the very town they were elected to serve.