Green affordable housing at Eliakim’s Way

West Tisbury homeowner Matt Coffey's Eliakim's Way home tested positive for high radon levels. — Ralph Stewart

There is more to affordable housing than a manageable mortgage payment. The new homeowner must pay property taxes, maintain the property, heat it in winter (and perhaps cool it in summer), and handle electricity costs for lighting, necessary appliances, hot water, and the family’s entertainment devices.

For a person of modest means, home ownership on the Vineyard is a complicated and perhaps daunting challenge. Eight high-performance, affordable, single-family houses on Eliakim’s Way in West Tisbury show the way to total affordability, with savings in maintenance and energy as well as a subsidized initial price.

The eight houses were made possible by a collaboration among the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank, South Mountain Company (SMC), the town of West Tisbury, Cape Light Compact, Martha’s Vineyard Housing Fund, Dukes County Regional Housing Authority, Habitat for Humanity of Martha’s Vineyard, and the Island Housing Trust (IHT). Winners of a lottery administered by the IHT bought the houses. The cost to each winner depended on the size of the house (two-bedroom or three-bedroom) and whether the owner’s income was 80, 100, or 120 percent of the average median income for Dukes County (in 2010, $74,200 for a family of four).

A house at an affordable price

The value of land on Martha’s Vineyard is a big hurdle for affordable housing here. Land can cost hundreds of thousands per acre. Even a person with a solid middle-class income would have difficulty spending that kind of money for land before the first shovelful of dirt was turned over in construction. At Eliakim’s Way, the owners, now beginning their second years in the houses, do not own the land their houses sit on. Instead, they lease the land long-term from the IHT. The IHT bought the eight acre site and then sold conservation restrictions to four acres of it to the Land Bank, which bought 20 nearby acres in the same deal.

According to Philippe Jordi, executive director of IHT, the new homeowners, who had an average income of 84 percent of AMI, paid an average of $242,000 per dwelling. SMC did the site design and architecture. Habitat for Humanity built one of the buildings. The other seven were built by SMC. Construction costs were reduced about one-fifth by private contributions. Another one-fifth came from town Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds. West Tisbury town meetings allocated CPA funds in 2008 and 2009, totaling $570,000, about half of which was matched by state funding of the CPA in those years.

Energy at an affordable price

Probably most important for long-term affordability is the potential for saving the owners money on energy. Each house has energy-generating photo-voltaic (PV) panels on its roof, as well as energy-saving features such as super-insulation, triple-glazed windows, and heat-recovery ventilation.The money ($500,000) came from the Massachusetts Green Affordable Homes Initiative. When Gov. Deval Patrick visited Eliakim’s Way last month, SMC president John Abrams thanked him and the state legislature for significant help in advanced energy affordability. Mr. Abrams told The Times that these funds did not reduce the cost of the building, but made it possible to build them with zero-energy capability. The Massachusetts Green Affordable Homes Initiative was a one-time opportunity. Future affordable housing will have to look to other sources for similar grants.

When the new Eliakim’s Way owners moved in last spring, SMC announced that any homeowner who could go from June 1, 2010, to May 31, 2011, with zero net energy use would be awarded a year’s membership in Whippoorwill Farm, Andrew Woodruff’s Community Supported Agriculture cooperative, or a $400 gift certificate at the Net Result.

After one year of experience, detailed records show that two of the houses did use less energy than the PV panels on the roof generated. Two other dwellings came very close to zero net energy. Even the family that saved the least energy generated more than half of its needs from the solar panels (see chart), a substantial savings over conventional homes.

SMC quotes energy expert Andy Shapiro, “There is no such thing as a net zero house, only net zero families.”

SMC was able to separately meter all the houses’ heating, cooling, hot water, and lights and appliances. Heat from a Daikin single-zone heat pump was relatively even, with the exception of one house, and less than half of the total energy use, in one case only one-eighth of total energy use. There were also ceiling-mounted radiant panels for supplemental heat in the bedrooms. Some owners used these much more than others. Cooling also varied tremendously — some families didn’t use it at all. Energy for hot water, appliances, and other devices also varied.

SMC has published a study of energy uses in the eight homes at Eliakim’s way, with interesting speculations about the variations in energy use. The complete report is available at SMC has a similar but up-scale zero-energy-capability house on West Spring Street for sale at market price.

Maintenance and taxes

The houses at Eliakim’s Way are designed to be ultra-low maintenance. They have aluminum window frames, cypress trim, and cedar shingle siding, all of which should last many years without painting.

As housing values rise, so do assessments. Although in theory increased assessments should reduce the property tax rate, and all homeowners should remain in roughly the same position relative to the total town assessed value and pay about the same percentage of the town budget as the year before. However, the theory doesn’t always match the reality, and town tax assessors have a complicated task, one in which they have very little leeway. Therefore, one threat to affordable housing is the potential of increased taxes forcing out a homeowner who has a narrow margin for error.

At Eliakim’s Way, the houses are required to remain affordable forever. Mr. Jordi explained that the IHT makes an annual calculation of a maximum price, based on the current value of the house and the leasehold, plus a small percentage for inflation. Though the leasehold is not without some value, the homeowner does not own the land itself, and therefore his taxes are not subject the fluctuations in land value on this popular resort and retirement Island. The IHT reports this not-higher-than figure to the town assessors. This is what the house is worth to the homeowner or, if the present owners sell, to anyone who might qualify to buy it.

Community by lottery

The eight families who live at Eliakim’s Way were chosen by lottery from all qualified (by income) applicants. Emily Galligan, president of the Eliakim’s Way Homeowners Association told The Times that she has been surprised and delighted by the neighbors.

“I came here looking for affordable housing,” she said, “but I also found a community. I always wanted to live someplace where I could run next door to borrow an egg, and this is it.”

The new neighbors get along very well, have started a community garden and have frequent cookouts together. They even share a lawnmower. They have had a successful yard sale. “Except,” Ms. Galligan says with a laugh, “I think I bought more stuff than I got rid of.”