Soundings : Housing gap
Each July and August, the Island's leading nonprofits pack the calendar with the fundraising events that will make or break their budgets for another year. Whether you're a deep-pockets philanthropist or just a civic-minded citizen who wants to support the good work that holds this place together, you can choose your favorite Island cause and find a celebration that will make supporting it fun.
Except, that is, if the cause you'd like to support is affordable housing.
Visit the Vineyard Housing Office off State Road in Tisbury, and you'll see the problem. The sign at the entrance has placards for the residents — Habitat for Humanity, Dukes County Regional Housing Authority, Island Housing Trust. Where the Island Affordable Housing Fund sign used to be, there's a gap.
In the decade from its birth to its meltdown, the Affordable Housing Fund did more than raise millions of dollars for its neighbor agencies in the housing office. It also raised public consciousness and fostered a sense of urgency around one of the Island's most pressing issues: the housing affordability gap that's driving a whole generation of essential working people away, threatening to make this place a monoculture of millionaires.
"Preserving Community," consultant John Ryan's November 2001 report, first sounded the alarm on the housing issue, rallying activists and catapulting housing to the short list of important Island causes for several years. Then came 2008: the American economy tanked, the Affordable Housing Fund overextended itself on the Bradley Square project in Oak Bluffs, and suddenly this new Island fundraising organization had augured in as quickly as it had soared skyward.
Consultant Karen Sunnarborg's follow-up to the Ryan report, unveiled June 19 at a forum in Tisbury, is unlikely on its own to have anything like the galvanizing effect of "Preserving Community." Most of us by now are suffering issue fatigue where housing is concerned, and this is a sober assessment of accomplishments to date, concluding with a call for sharper focus and more realistic goals in the years ahead.
One of the biggest challenges, duly noted by the Sunnarborg report, is that the demise of Island Affordable Housing — which at its peak was raising close to a million dollars a year — leaves a huge gap in resources for housing initiatives. The new report dismisses the 2001 goal of 100 new housing units per year as simply unattainable, proposing instead a target of 50 units per year, and finally admitting, "A goal of 30 units might be more reasonable in the short-term."
The estimated cost to create 50 affordable units per year is estimated at $10 million, about 10 percent of the six Island town budgets combined.
Voters across the Island have shown a steadfast willingness to support housing efforts — most notably the Rental Assistance program of the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority — with tax money from the Community Preservation Act. But CPA funds alone will never be enough to finance housing on the Island. State and federal funding sources will need to be fully explored, but the problem is that this government money comes with program parameters that clash with what the Island is politically willing to do. (Propose a large new senior housing complex, and you can find political support; but propose something like another Morgan Woods in Edgartown, for low-income working families, and you'll encounter heavy resistance.)
We stand at a political moment now with respect to affordable housing — the effort to preserve the diversity of the Island's human community — that in many ways resembles the politics around the preservation of land here 30 years ago. Before the Land Bank's creation in 1986, we had all these wonderful nonprofits doing what they could to preserve the landscape, but lacking the resources to do much more than nibble around the periphery of the problem.
The housing advocates I've spoken with don't resent the Land Bank, but they do envy its reliable revenue stream. Unless and until such a source is found, private charitable support will continue to be critical to housing efforts on Martha's Vineyard. Meanwhile, donors who want to advance the cause of affordable housing here will need to take a more direct approach than combing the summer's calendar for celebrity galas to attend.
Right now, the local organization in the best position to convert serious funding into serious solutions is clearly the Island Housing Trust. IHT has worked effectively with enough Island towns to have traction and credibility, and with the right bankroll it could accomplish wonderful things. The trust recently had to walk away from an opportunity in West Tisbury because it just didn't have the resources — and it's looking now at six units in Tisbury that could be turned around quickly as permanent affordable rentals, if only it had the right financial backing.
If you give a donation to Habitat for Humanity, they'll do nice things with it. And help for the Regional Housing Authority is always welcome, but its rental program isn't easily scalable – it works by matching year-round rental properties with income-qualified tenants, and doubling its budget wouldn't double the program's reach.
But the Island Housing Trust recently won state certification as a Community Development Corporation (CDC), enabling it to give huge tax credits to its supporters, and it is poised now to scale up its work on the Vineyard. The IHT board wants to double the organization's number of sustainable housing units from 50 to 100 by 2015, and the only thing standing between the Trust and this goal is a shortage of financial support.
So to conclude: If you agree that affordable housing belongs on the short list of important Vineyard causes, if you have an appetite for tax credits this year, and if you're in a position to make a gift that makes a big difference, I'd recommend sitting down with Philippe Jordi, director of the Island Housing Trust. His organization is lean and efficient, with a sterling track record and a terrific grasp of the housing issue here. IHT is ready to make a real dent in the housing problem as soon as someone puts some serious fuel in its financial tank.