Soundings: Awareness, production, stewardship

This March, when the Patrick Administration awarded $3 million in tax credits to community development corporations across Massachusetts, 38 recipients were on the list. Just 10 organizations were funded at the highest level of $110,000 for the first year of this three-year program. Among the 10 was IHT, the Island Housing Trust.

This was a singular affirmation for IHT, the only enterprise of its kind on Martha’s Vineyard. Phillippe Jordi, founding director of the trust, has embraced the challenge of fundraising as he does all his work — with a wonky passion for the housing cause, or perhaps it’s a passionate wonkiness; after an interview with him, which is always like drinking information from a fire hose, I can’t decide which.

Spend an hour with Mr. Jordi, and you’ll come away with an armload of spreadsheets, timelines, project summaries, and long-term planning documents. You’ll also come away impressed with what this bright, energetic man has been able to accomplish with an operation  at the Vineyard Housing Office in Tisbury that employs just two people.

Last fall, with the Island Housing Needs Assessment freshly printed, and with information garnered from their own interviews with Island homeowners, renters, and town officials, Mr. Jordi and his IHT board held a retreat to sort out their priorities and draft a long-term plan. The 20-page document that resulted sets ambitious goals for IHT, but in simplest terms, it distills the organization’s mission to three central elements:

Increase community awareness and foster support for housing efforts on the Island. Produce new affordable housing. And ensure that the Island’s stock of affordable housing is well maintained for future generations.

These make for a powerful triad of central goals. The core task of the Island Housing Trust — bringing affordable housing to the Vineyard — is bracketed by community awareness, its necessary precursor, and the stewardship of properties which will be its continuing responsibility.

Cultivating awareness and support is a never-ending job, although your housing must be under a rock somewhere if you don’t appreciate the calamitous effects of the gap between Island real estate prices and incomes. At the Vineyard Housing Office, says Mr. Jordi, he’s seeing an early escalation of the housing crisis this spring. “Second homes in the lower end of the market are being bought up, and people aren’t able to rent them anymore. We’re talking about professionals and two-income families who can’t find rentals. That’s happening now, way before the season is supposed to heat up.”

And, in his conversations with social service providers such as Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, Mr. Jordi says, he’s hearing that the housing crisis is affecting not only clients, but caregivers as well. The cost of housing is making it difficult for agencies such as the Island Counseling Center to recruit clinicians.

The recipe for more affordable housing, says Mr. Jordi, boils down to three main ingredients. “One is capacity here at the organizational level. Then you need opportunities and resources — opportunities being land, and resources being funding.”

Matching up the resources with the opportunities can be tricky, because housing projects are expensive, and organizing funding from the Island’s six Community Preservation Act committees can be like herding so many cats.

But this year, a bit of heartening history is being made at the Island’s annual town meetings, one that bodes well for more regional cooperation on the affordable housing front.

Village Court is a campus of four buildings built in the 1970s behind Crane Appliance in Vineyard Haven. The Regional Housing Authority owns three of these buildings, and if you visit the site you’ll have no problem discerning which ones are RHA properties, because they look so much better.

IHT bought the fourth building at Village Court in February and is planning its renovation now with a design for six new rental units. But to make this project viable, IHT needed to raise about $400,000 — more than any one town CPA fund could afford to pay. Mr. Jordi asked Tisbury to contribute $200,000 over two years, and Tisbury agreed. And that’s when IHT stepped outside the box.

“I went to the other towns and said, ‘How about it? If we can provide you with some preference here, would you invest in this project?’ And we had positive responses from West Tisbury, Chilmark, and Edgartown.”

And so it came to pass that on this year’s warrants for the West Tisbury and Edgartown annual meetings on April 8, and for Chilmark’s meeting on April 28, voters will be asked to ratify contributions to an affordable housing initiative in Vineyard Haven.

“This is unique, and I think it’s kind of great,” says Mr. Jordi. “We’ve actually had some interesting discussions with CPA committees on how we might work together on regional projects. Because the reality is, we can’t do these things quickly enough if we’re working with just one town’s revenue. It’s much more efficient if we can work with all the towns, with the understanding that there will be reciprocity over time.”

The Island Housing Trust has 61 properties in five of the Vineyard towns — all but Chilmark — and recently has been bringing new housing to the market at a rate of about 10 units per year. The organization has set itself a goal of producing at least 15 units this year, and 23 in 2015. If you’d like to learn more about how IHT plans to accomplish this, I’d suggest you drop in on its annual meeting, at 10:30 am on Saturday, April 12, in the beautiful new program room of the West Tisbury Library.

A panel discussion is part of the meeting program. Promises Mr. Jordi: “My idea is to bring people to speak whom you might not immediately associate with affordable housing — and to begin to take the discussion of housing needs beyond what we typically hear.”