Soundings: Scalable solution

Soundings: Scalable solution

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Consultant Karen Sunnarborg is at work now preparing an Island housing needs assessment, a much-needed update to the reports prepared in 2001 and 2005 for the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. There’s a lot to analyze, because so much has happened in this field over the past seven years.

Ms. Sunnarborg’s report will tally the affordable properties on the Island and measure them against the community’s need. But what I’m waiting most eagerly to read is her analysis of what has worked, what could be done better, and what we perhaps shouldn’t try to do again.

One aspect of the affordable housing story that won’t be tabulated, but deserves to be celebrated, is the shift in public attitudes on the issue that the past decade has seen on the Vineyard. You seldom hear, any more, the geezer’s argument that affordable housing shouldn’t be the public’s business: “I worked hard when I was young, and I bought an Island home; I don’t see why we need to subsidize them now.” And we less often hear that worn-out complaint about creating “second-class citizens” when the topic is the subsidy of an affordable home with resale limits ensuring that it will be affordable for generations.

Such is the emerging consensus that three years ago, when the Island Housing Fund imploded, Island towns stepped up to support the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority’s rental assistance program and now reliably fund that program to the tune of half a million dollars a year.

In her report to the Island, Ms. Sunnarborg will have many successes to highlight. As we look at what we’ve accomplished, among the most interesting questions will be: Which of these programs can we duplicate? What is scalable, and what isn’t? Since we’re spending public money here, what gives the best bang for the buck?

Certainly one of the notable successes in affordable housing on Martha’s Vineyard over the past ten years has been the rental assistance program. For about $6,200 per rental, per year, it matches income-qualified tenants with Island landlords and pays part of the rent to make the properties affordable. Currently the program serves about 70 households, whose tenure in rental assistance averages two and a half years.

Rental assistance is a useful tool for preserving the diversity of the Island’s year-round community. But it’s not a program we can double in scale by throwing more money at it. In fact, the regional housing authority has asked at least one town in each of the last three years to reduce its funding for rental assistance, citing a shortage of landlord-tenant matches.

The only other Island initiative that rivals rental assistance in scale and impact is Morgan Woods in Edgartown. Morgan Woods, a mixed-income development of 60 rental units on 12 acres of town land, doubled the stock of affordable housing in Edgartown when it opened in June of 2007. Five years later, it’s a stable neighborhood with three-quarters of its original renters still in residence. Visit Morgan Woods in the evening and you’ll find families barbecuing on porches and kids playing on the greens; visit during the day and you’ll find most of the parking spaces empty, because folks are at work.

Morgan Woods is a thumping success by almost every measure, and it’s a story crying out to be duplicated on the Island.

Edgartown is already working on plans for a mixed-use housing development on nine acres off Clevelandtown Road. This project will be smaller — perhaps 20 units or so. But it builds on the success of Morgan Woods and moves Edgartown closer to the day when it meets the state standard of 10 percent affordable housing stock. Towns meeting that standard need no longer fear the threat of a hostile developer using Chapter 40B to ram through an unwelcome project.

Why aren’t more towns actively exploring the Morgan Woods approach? The guess here is that even though this project has worked out wonderfully, the idea of it offends our Vineyard sensibilities. Where affordable housing is concerned, we’re still fixated on an old esthetic that doesn’t serve us well when the mission is meeting this community’s needs. We’re still wrapped up in the romance of the detached single family home, and we’re inclined to see multi-home projects as somehow “un-Vineyardy.”

It took real leadership to overcome our attachment to scattered site housing and get Morgan Woods built. It’s doubtful that this neighborhood could have been created without the conviction of its namesake, Ted Morgan, and the respect he had earned in a lifetime of service to his town.

There are places where developments on the scale of Morgan Woods could be situated on the Island — most notably on land set aside for just this purpose in the Southern Woodlands of Oak Bluffs. The question is whether the Island now has a leader with the stature of a Ted Morgan to bring the next big affordable housing initiative into being.

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