At Large: Missing the affordable housing mark

For more than a decade the struggle to build shelter for Islanders who need it but can’t afford it has focused on structures – what to build, where to build, how much to build, to own or to rent, how to finance it, and can it be done in sufficient quantity to overcome the deficiency. A review of December’s partial draft and interim report of the Martha’s Vineyard Housing Needs Assessment (MVHNA) invokes the question: Have we analyzed the affordable housing problem correctly and moved to address it with the most effective strategies and the greatest chance for success? The answer appears to be no.

This latest report – successor to the 2001 study and the 2005 update – finds that the high cost of land; the huge affordability gap, $80,000 in Oak Bluffs to $426,000 in Chilmark; the paltry incomes for most of those who need modest shelter, insufficient to pay even a monthly $1,100 rent; large lot zoning that is hostile to changes that would allow variety in housing, including rental units and condos; and the lack of infrastructure, chiefly wastewater systems, that would support limited but denser and lower cost housing – all these contribute enormously to the problem. But, none of them is in the bull’s-eye of the affordable housing movement, nor is the question of how to expand the Island economy so it can create more and better paying jobs.

The report finds that we have not kept up with the need for housing since 2001, nor are we likely to be able to in the future, given the anticipated expansion of the populations in the two demographic segments that will come to depend heavily on one another. These are the aging baby boomers, who will increasingly need younger workers to prop them up and younger workers who will increasingly need better paying service jobs and housing they can afford.

“… Much more work needs to be done to address pressing housing needs,” the latest report explains. “Preserving Community [the 2001 study] recommended a goal of developing 100 to 150 units per year divided evenly between year‐round rental housing and affordable homeownership. Actual production has fallen far short.”

Looking ahead, the 2012 report “recommends the reduced but still ambitious goal of producing 50 units of affordable or community housing per year. This reduction in annual production goals reflects several important considerations: Production over the past decade has been almost 30 units per year, well below the 50 per year goal. Zoning and lack of adequate infrastructure are two major stumbling blocks to utilizing land more efficiently. Building sites are increasingly difficult to come by, expensive to acquire and develop, and often beleaguered by some local opposition, all resulting in a prolonged and expensive development process. The state applies a standard for annual housing production of 0.5% of the year‐round housing stock that would equal 40 units Island‐wide per year, less than the 50‐unit goal included in this Needs Assessment.”

It may be that our approach to affordable housing has been too narrowly focused over the last decade, and crippling delusion has played a part in tripping us up.

This is how the MVHNA’s study committee explains how its members see the problem: “This Housing Needs Assessment, has been prepared by ‘us’ for ‘us,’ for all Islanders who care about whether our children will be able to raise their own families locally, whether our cousin will make it through another long winter financially, whether our mother will be able to remain in her own home independently, whether the nice young family down the road will be able to find housing during the summer after their winter lease expires, and whether we will be able to hold on to the diversity, generosity, and collaboration that have for so long characterized Island life. We need to make sure that all of us have safe, decent and affordable places to live.”

Of course, it may very well be that those of us “who care about whether our children will be able to raise their own families locally,” and so on, may include some of us who think the focus of the affordable housing effort is mistaken and unlikely to help realize any of these wholesome but misty aspirations.

Now a bit more about the Vineyard’s affordability gap and its harmful consequences.

“The affordability gap,” according to the December report, “was an estimated $213,500 as of September 2012, the difference between what a median income earning household can afford ($321,500 based on the median income figure for a household of two, and 80% financing) and the median house price of $535,000. The gap increases to almost $300,000 ($297,000) for those earning at 80% AMI, assuming they can qualify for 95% financing through the Soft Second Loan Program or MassHousing mortgage financing. The gap declines to $104,000 for those earning at 120% AMI, and it is only at the 150% AMI level that the affordability gap begins to disappear, but only if the purchaser can afford 80% financing and the approximately $110,000 in cash needed to cover the down payment and closing costs. It should be noted that the affordability gaps of $213,500 [average over the six towns] and $646,000 for Dukes and Nantucket Counties, respectively, were by far the highest in the state …”

The missing keys to solving the affordability problem have not escaped the leaders of the housing movement over the last decade of their devoted work. For instance, in conversation, they acknowledge that zoning changes that will support economical, clustered rental housing or condos and similar housing for seasonal workers are necessary to get the big job done. But, they also acknowledge that the political obstacles to persuading voters to make such changes are daunting. Making such changes will help make the housing problem, cruel now but desperately so in the future, solvable. And plentiful, well paying jobs in an economy that is succeeding at a pace that matches the anticipated growth in the Island population – anticipated to rise from roughly 18,000 today to 21,000 by the end of the decade – needs to be a target not only of planners Island-wide who generally have their sights set mistakenly on constraining growth, but also of housing advocates.