Editorial: Affordable housing, in the news

Editorial: Affordable housing, in the news

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A decade ago, when the Island Affordable Housing Fund released its first housing needs assessment, the narrative account of the problem drew a bleak picture: “In the 1990s, Martha’s Vineyard added 2,700 seasonal and part-time homes and 1,000 owner-occupied homes but built fewer than 50 new year-round rental apartments and distributed less than 20 youth lots for affordable homeownership. During the same period, local employers added more than 1,500 relatively low-paying service and retail jobs. Here are some of the numbers that illustrate the imbalance between Island housing costs and wages: high home prices 85 percent above the statewide median; high rents at least 30 percent above the statewide median; and low wages 27 percent below the statewide average.”

Since then we’ve built more subsidized, affordable dwellings, maintained a rental housing subsidy program that has teetered but consistently attracted solid support, even through the depth of the national economic indigestion. It is without question a hats-off moment for those neighbors and generous donors who toil in the affordable housing vineyards.

Still — and facts are facts — the latest comprehensive analysis of Martha’s Vineyard’s affordable housing problem finds us coping with the same lowering outlook.

It’s all about high costs, low pay. But we knew that. And it hasn’t changed. What does it mean? It means that, across the demographic of ordinary folk — people who grew up here, skilled and well-paid workers from the Vineyard or the mainland, older Islanders of moderate income — few will be able to become our successful and secure long-term neighbors. This is despite all the energy expended over the past 10 years on housing.

It may very well be that we have, for more than 10 years, done the same thing to slay the affordable housing menace, all the while hoping for a fresh and uplifting turn in our fortunes and those of our neighbors.

We’ve made our choices.

The Vineyard has chosen a defective approach to solving the problems created by the high cost of housing, and beyond housing, by the oppressively high general cost of living. We’ve elected to focus on heavily subsidized, publicly provided housing for low-income Islanders to own. We’ve made the choice to avoid increasing housing density and to avoid encouraging construction of substantial numbers of rental units, which would be less problematic and more helpful to more Islanders. (Edgartown did the right thing with its Morgan Woods development.) And we’ve elected to defend against vigorous economic growth.

We’ve played defence — of lifestyle, of self-image, of property values — when offense was required.

The Martha’s Vineyard Housing Needs Assessment Committee officially presented the fresh, comprehensive report on Island housing needs, a year in the making and prepared by housing and planning consultant Karen Sunnarborg of Jamaica Plain, at a meeting on June 19 at the Tisbury Senior Center.

“You might raise your kid here, but your kid is not going to stay because they can’t afford to,” David Vigneault, executive director of the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority and a member of the committee, summarized the report Friday, in a telephone conversation with Times writer Tony Omer. “The two things that are required to allow kids to come back from college and raise a family on the Island — a consistent decent income and affordable housing — are not here.”

Economic development plus more and varied housing opportunities are required. To serve these needs, political, planning, and regulatory thinking must change.

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