A small step backward

Back in the 1970s and 80s, when land was more affordable and it seemed there would always be buildable lots for new families, Island towns offered “youth lots” and “resident homesites” at bargain prices, allowing recipients to cash them in at full market value after as little as a decade. But that was a long time ago. Now, provisions for resale at windfall-profit prices aren’t being offered or discussed in any Island town.

Except for one.

In Edgartown, the planning board has proposed an amendment to the zoning bylaws, entitled “Substandard Lots as Affordable Homesites,” which would allow folks to carve out substandard building lots and sell the homes at full market value just 15 years later.

A close reading of this bylaw amendment suggests, first of all, that it’s poorly named. At bottom, the bylaw is about creating exceptions to the density provisions of zoning. Depending on your point of view, this might or might not be a good thing. But any discussion of the bylaw is complicated by the way the planning board has draped it with the motherhood-and-apple-pie mantle of affordable housing, which this amendment advances ineffectively at best.

Viewed through the lens of all we’ve learned about how to foster affordable housing on Martha’s Vineyard, this Edgartown amendment is a throwback to ways of thinking that were already becoming dated 30 years ago.

To give a timely example: Edgartown is currently processing the sale of a property at Bold Meadow that was bought by an Island family as a resident homesite in the 1980s. The terms of that purchase provided for a 50/50 sharing of the land’s appraised value with the town at the time of resale. This means that Edgartown will receive about $170,000, while the owners also receive a significant profit.

Thanks to the forward-looking perspective of the people who crafted that agreement three decades ago, a big chunk of change is now coming back to Edgartown. Applied toward the rental assistance program of the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority, this $170,000 would be enough to subsidize three affordable rentals for nearly 10 years.

Advocates for full-value resale of affordable homes – let’s call it the Windfall Policy – like to say that by placing restrictions on resale, we’re creating second-class citizens who can’t enjoy the American dream of personal wealth that home ownership can (sometimes) bring. What they can’t explain is why we taxpayers, as a matter of public policy, should be in the business of spending money not just to build a stock of affordable housing on Martha’s Vineyard, but also to make a few lucky individuals rich.

Advocates for the Windfall Policy like to suggest that people are staying away from housing lotteries in droves because of provisions that place limits on resale. And in fact, there has been a notable absence of anything resembling droves where recent purchase opportunities are concerned. But wait a minute – perpetual affordability is not the reason: The Wentworth Way project, a new set of townhouses recently offered in Tisbury, is an instructive case in point.

Tisbury and the Island Housing Trust recently requested applications from people interested in purchasing one of four duplex units now being completed on Lake Street – one offered at $185,000 for families earning up to 80 percent of the area median income and three at $225,000 for families earning up to 100 percent. Thirty-eight individuals and families took out application papers for the Wentworth Way townhouses. But on the deadline of Friday, December 2, only three applications had come in: two for the 80-percent unit, and just one for the three offered at the higher price. (The remaining two units are being offered now on a first-come, first-served basis.)

Philippe Jordi, executive director of the Island Housing Trust, got on the phone that weekend to survey the applicants who hadn’t returned their papers, asking why they’d dropped out. The most common reasons they gave were credit problems, inability to swing the down payment, and worries about getting mortgages given their incomes. Only one applicant mentioned any concern with the restrictions on later resale of the townhouses.

So yes, it’s true that in this economy, long lines aren’t forming for opportunities to buy affordable homes. But it’s not the restriction on resale price that’s putting people off. The real problems are job insecurity, tight credit, and the fact that even a subsidized home is a stretch for a family earning median income on Martha’s Vineyard today.

Edgartown’s home buy-down program, an initiative of the affordable housing committee, has recently placed two families in homes by contributing $200,000 toward each purchase, and a third closing is set for later this month. In all, Edgartown hopes to find homes for six families with $1.3 million received from developers of the Field Club project. All six of these homes have deed restrictions on future resale which will keep them forever in the Island’s stock of affordable housing, which is exactly where they should be.

$1.3 million is a lot of public money to spend helping just six families. Invested in the rental assistance program, that money would be enough to place two dozen families in affordable Island rentals for almost a decade. But the buy-down program is justifiable, in the end, because it’s one of many investments we’re making to preserve the human ecosystem here on Martha’s Vineyard. These six affordable homes will belong in one sense to six specific Island families. And because they’re protected as affordable homes forever, in another important sense they belong to all of us.