Housing study points to growing Island economic disparity

The Wentworth Way group of affordable houses in Vineyard Haven was built by the Island Housing Trust with assistance from the Town of Tisbury. — File photo by Tony Omer

The final report of the Martha’s Vineyard Housing Needs Assessment Committee points to a decrease in the number of children and younger Island residents and an increase in the number of older residents, as well as an overall increase in the cost of housing with an ever widening affordability gap between what a median income family can afford and the median price of housing.

Housing and planning consultant Karen Sunnarborg of Jamaica Plain, who compiled the report, made the final presentation of the study Wednesday evening at the Tisbury Senior Center.

Updated, final preliminary reports are available on the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) website. The 250-page final report will be posted at the end of the month. The MVC was part of the committee that also included representatives of the six Island towns.

The final report, which is not significantly different from the earlier preliminary reports, states that there is increasing poverty on the Vineyard, with close to one quarter of all households earning less than $35,000 and an increase in the number of lower paying jobs in the service industry.

Many lower-income people spend more than half of their income on housing, according to the report.

The report notes that there are approximately 5,000 seasonal workers.

Charting housing needs, the report states that there is a predominance of single-family houses and a relative scarcity of multi-family housing with a majority of new housing units produced for seasonal use or as second homes. The rental market is affected by seasonal rentals, with winter or year-round rents typically in the $1,200 to $2,200 range, often with high upfront cash requirements.

While noting that there are two distinct house markets, high-end and low-end, the report states that the median house sale price has increased from $535,000 in September of 2012 to $600,000 in March of this year.

The report attributes the Island’s affordable housing problem to an average weekly wage that is 71 percent of the state average and a median home price that is 54 percent above the state’s. The Island median rent is 17 percent higher that the rest of the state.

Island affordable housing projects, the report said, have not benefited from the economy of scale as in off-Island communities, and donated and substantially discounted land prices have had a significant bearing on affordability.

The report suggests establishing housing goals of 50 affordable units per year with an 80 to 20 percent split in rentals versus ownership and recommends taking advantage of the economies of scale through higher density projects.

The report follows a similar study called “Preserving Community,” completed in 2001 and revised in 2005. It includes three major components, a housing needs data analysis, an analysis of organizational housing initiatives and recommendations for addressing priority needs.

In a conversation with the Times several months ago, Ms. Sunnarborg said that the report is, “the result of a lot of research from a lot of different sources. Most of it is data-driven and based on U.S. census information, market information and information from the towns.”

She said that the report is the result of information gathered from individual interviews with Islanders and meetings with community representatives as well as information from each of the towns’ assessors and building departments, Island public housing agencies, the Steamship Authority, and other Island organizations. The committee looked at effective strategies implemented in other communities as well. The MVC provided technical help.

Philippe Jordi, executive director of the Island Housing Trust (IHT), a nonprofit focused on creating and maintaining Vineyard affordable housing projects, said that it is important to have accurate data in order for IHT to stay relevant and to be able to plan for the future.

Speaking of the report, Mr. Jordi said, “It reflects the ongoing affordable housing need we have here on the Island. The demographic shifts, the aging population, the decrease in the younger workforce is troubling. As we age as a community we will need more help from the workforce on the Island.” He said we need the information from this report to stay relevant and to help determine our course of action for the future. “We will need to look for more funding sources and to continue to combine our resources with the Island towns to bring housing costs down.”