At Large: A year later, significant progress at Island Housing Trust

At the end 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 would be challenged, and the ambitious Bradley Square project in Oak Bluffs ultimately collapsed. Indeed, the crippling recession of 2008-2009 and its slow-growth aftermath, extending, as it has, to this year and, most analysts suggest, beyond, took a toll on the devoted supporters of affordable housing development.

The alarms that sounded in 2009 and 2010, as property values fell and houses on the market for sale multiplied, along with foreclosures, may have led some Islanders to think that the effort to make housing for neighbors who need it had come to an end. That effort, which had begun with great energy, dedication, informality, and confusion at the beginning of the decade badly needed refreshment and a carefully thought-through tune-up. After all, the need persisted, even as the economy changed, the generous impulses of wealthy donors had attenuated, and the state and federal government’s ability to contribute to housing construction withered.

The 2001 Island Affordable Housing Fund’s Island-wide housing needs assessment had defined the daunting contours of the housing problem here. A catch-up survey in 2005 recorded progress, but not enough — 95 affordable ownership opportunities, 83 year-round rentals, and another 165 units in the pipeline in the century’s first half-decade — against a large and growing need. (We will soon get a fresh glimpse of the size of the affordable housing problem, from a new survey that is in the works.)

The mid-decade economic collapse gave the affordable housing effort here a good thumping, but the smart toilers in that effort persisted, and in the annual report of the Island Housing Trust (IHT), Islanders can see that persistent has paid off.

A year ago, we reported that IHT had made a new start, embracing a smarter, more measured, disciplined, and carefully organized approach that narrowly defined the nonprofit’s goals and built a business plan around those goals that is clearly intended to build long-lived capacity — IHT describes its commitment as “perpetual” — to meet its objectives.

“Our model is simple,” president Richard Leonard wrote in IHT’s 2011 annual report. “We create and sustain permanent housing solutions that bridge the gap between the Island’s high property values and families in need. We lower the initial cost of homeownership by eliminating the land cost and a portion of the construction costs through grants and donations. In exchange, our homeowners agree that, if they should sell their home, they sell it to another low or moderate-income family at an affordable price.”

What are the ingredients? Well-cultivated local partnerships with town and regional governments, with other nonprofits, and with tenants and homeowners that have benefitted from IHT’s work. Careful management of development and maintenance, so that projects are on time and on budget. Houses that are economical and efficient. The ground lease program that ensures survivable affordability, in part by keeping IHT in close touch with its beneficiaries, so that warnings of impending difficulties come early. And a core of services offered to other nonprofits in the affordable housing effort for design and oversight, a modest income stream from ground leases to offset operating overhead. The trust has reorganized its board and its governance policies. Its net assets have grown more than $1.3 million, or 12 percent, in the last year, despite a modest cash position. This organization holds nothing back in pursuit of its mission.

And, the fruits of all this — IHT now has a portfolio of 43 residential properties, 22 of them the products of development projects completed in the last five years. Mr. Leonard, a new board, and Philippe Jordi, IHT’s capable and inventive executive, have remade IHT into an affordable housing engine designed to keep on running, in fat times and lean, doing its important work.