At Large: We need to do something different on affordable housing

Over the years that have intervened since the first youth lot recipient decades ago hollered yippee, the size of the affordable housing problem has grown, as has the appetite for Vineyard property among the well-heeled in the Eastern Megalopolis. The Martha’s Vineyard response has been to resort to planners and rule makers and their natural derivative, development regulation. We have demanded large lots and low density. We’ve discouraged multi-unit, condo-type development. We have abetted the market trends, protecting high and growing real estate values, and driving them higher.

We have stopped the creation of half-acre, three-quarter acre, and acre and a half lots. These are the house lots that many of our friends and lifelong neighbors, including teachers, nurses, police, and small business owners could afford to buy and build on in the 1970s and early 1980s. Some summer visitors, not the celebrated rich, also took advantage of these modest opportunities, figuring one day to retire here.

We have planned and regulated this modest chance at a place to live out of existence. It is now rare. And, because nearly everything nowadays is a development of regional impact, sited on priority habitat, the limited efforts town voters have made to liberalize development rules, to encourage the construction of affordable dwellings, have met the need to a very modest degree, in the welter of multi-layer reviews, chaotic multi-part public hearings, and swelling permitting costs.

Add to all this the widespread restraint on business expansion, so that well-paying, year-round jobs in good, growing companies have not kept pace with the escalating cost of living. Then throw in the expansion of conservation land, and you have a surefire recipe for the high price of real estate and of Vineyard living in general.

This is not to say that the accumulation of preserved land, whether with public or private funds, or even with funds loaned at advantageous terms by wealthy summer neighbors, such as happened recently at Flat Point Farm, is civic error. The competition of large lot-high priced real estate and its supporting accumulation of protected land versus the need for housing that normal folk can afford ought not to be a zero sum gain, though unchanged it will turn out that way. To avoid a winners and losers outcome, Island voters must unite behind an effort to rationalize zoning rules and the regional regulatory burden. And, we need to get real about economic growth.

Forced, as we have been over the last few years, to recognize the affordable housing problem, we’ve relentlessly set aside a good bargain for a perverse one. Confronting the expanded need for moderately priced housing but unwilling to increase housing density, the earnest, high-minded, and energetic efforts to develop affordable housing for moderate-income Islanders has become almost exclusively a publicly funded effort, or a public and private nonprofit effort, using tax dollars, private donations, grants, and in-kind gifts. Today, Island Housing Trust, carefully and opportunistically led, is the survivor of this lonely effort. The array of significant rental subsidies and immense subsidies for housing recipients who might buy affordable structures now control outcomes. Household incomes must handsomely exceed federal housing guidelines to qualify for this shelter. And, all this comes with restrictions that severely constrain the future prosperity of the recipient families and of their offspring, while they support the high prices in the private real estate market.

The result? We control our housing environment but fail to adequately support the need of the largest population that needs good, well-paying, permanent jobs and affordable shelter. If such Islanders, our neighbors, are to avoid being the losers in what I’ve described as a zero sum contest, the key will be a constituency that recognizes the need for rezoning for smaller lots, for a variety of kinds of housing, and for economic development — and then presses voters to get on board.

A version of this column appeared in March 2009.