To the Editor:
Jack Shea’s recent article [“Vineyard applicants find affordable housing is not so affordable,” January 26] tells a grim and accurate story about affordable housing on Martha’s Vineyard, but there is more to tell. Habitat for Humanity of Martha’s Vineyard has been building houses with Island families for 10 years – and it has not found itself short of qualified applicants. The model is a bit different – Habitat builds houses with the direct participation of the homeowner and the community as a whole. Most importantly, no banks are involved – Habitat holds the mortgage. However, it is challenged by the limited financial and other resources on our Island.
Habitat’s mission is to help families who are no different from those described in the article, except they earn less, putting traditional bank financing just out of reach. To deal with that problem, Habitat offers a different approach to home financing. We require minimal cash down payments and provide a zero percent mortgage to make sure a homeowner’s monthly payments are affordable. On the face of it, that may appear like a giveaway, but it is far from it.
Every Habitat family must agree to a “down payment” of 500 person-hours of time (350 for a single-parent family) actively helping to construct the house they will live in. Furthermore, we require financial qualification. Mortgage payments, while affordable, are very real, with due dates and late payment penalties. Because we handle our own financing with interest-free loans for our homeowner-partners, the tedium and uncertainty of the long bank mortgage application process is avoided.
The other part of the affordability calculation is ongoing costs beyond mortgage payments. To that end, the housing community has worked hard to build efficient, low-maintenance houses that keep energy and other costs low. We have been criticized for building “too much” house, but the slight extra cost means homeowners can worry less about how to make ends meet, allowing them to work and live comfortably in our community. Community stability is ultimately what we are about.
Unfortunately, Habitat faces limits in our ability to build. This year we should complete our tenth house. We are very proud of what we do — nothing can beat the gratification of helping to stabilize a family and seeing the broad smiles that brings. While we are thrilled to make such a huge difference in a family’s life, we make a small contribution in terms of numbers of units here on the Vineyard.
Our partnership building model is sound, proven over hundreds of thousands of units worldwide. But we’re dependent on the degree to which a community can donate time, material, and money. On our small Island that has historically meant that we can afford to build about one house per year, which limits our ability to provide homes for our many applicants. While we have managed to build more affordable housing in recent years, global economic conditions put significant pressures on donors and volunteers, who have to balance priorities in a tight economic climate.
The solution to our housing shortage is the coordinated efforts of many organizations in our community – towns, the Island Housing Trust, Dukes County Regional Housing Authority, Habitat for Humanity of Martha’s Vineyard, Martha’s Vineyard Housing Fund, Island Elderly Housing and others. We routinely work together on projects to accomplish the broader goal, but no one of us can cure the housing issue alone. There’s plenty of work to go around. We all need the help of the community to fulfill our goals.
Neal A. Sullivan