The All-Island Planning Board (AIPB), a recently formed regional committee created to bring modernity and unity to Island zoning bylaws, met at the Chilmark Community Center last Thursday, and the shortage of year-round housing consumed the two-hour session. Representatives from the six towns and regional organizations spoke about a wide array of solutions, which were as different as the towns themselves. Tiny houses, large apartment buildings, and systematic acquisition of existing housing stock were a few of the options aired.
“No question, the place where we’ve found the most common ground is affordable housing,” Rich Osnoss, Chilmark planning board chairman, who ran the meeting, said. “We have people with expertise, like the Island Housing Trust, and we should be asking them for help. Philippe has been at this a long time, and he’s a wealth of information,” he said, referring to Island Housing Trust executive director Philippe Jordi.
Chilmark planning board member Joan Malkin, who is also a member of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC), said that before specific solutions are discussed, the AIPC needed to define its mission.
“I think we need a clear picture of what our priorities are,” she said. “I see our role enabling the six planning boards to work together, and possibly creating a plan for all-Island funding. But it needs to be clear: Is the priority workforce housing, rental housing, ownership?”
“We need 12-month leases, badly,” Dukes County Regional Housing Authority (DCHRA) executive director David Vigneault said. “It is a dominant issue in the economy right now, and the body politic gets it. Businesses get it. Parents get it — many have adult children who can’t afford to move back here. The 25- to 35-year-old population can’t live here. That’s a huge loss for us. The school population isn’t going down, because people who’ve made their nut off-Island are moving here to raise their kids.”
“The MVC did the housing-needs assessment, and it was clear priority needs to be given to year-round rental housing,” Christine Flynn, MVC economic development and affordable housing planner, said, referencing a study the MVC released last December. “We need to define what is community housing, workforce housing, affordable housing. It has to be clear so voters know what they’re voting for. Change of this scale can only be decided at town meeting.”
Aquinnah Community Preservation Committee chairman Derrill Bazzy gave kudos to the towns of Chilmark and West Tisbury for passing bylaws that encourage accessory apartments, noting that 49 accessory apartments have been created in West Tisbury.
“This demand for housing is not income-based,” Oak Bluffs planning board member Ewell Hopkins said. “There are people with money to write a check, and no product to buy. This isn’t about charity. We all suffer because we don’t have diverse housing.”
“Market rate has become a dirty word,” Oak Bluffs planning board chairman Brian Packish said. “We need to relax regulation, and we’re heading in the other direction.”
Zoning the crux
Mr. Vigneault said that to make a dent in the shortage, town zoning boards have to create bylaws that allow for multi-unit developments. “It’s all about scale,” he said. “We know we haven’t made any headway even remotely keeping up with the tide.”
According to the United States Census Bureau, only 5.3 percent of housing in Dukes County is in multi-unit structures, as compared to the state average of 41.7 percent.
“Zoning is the crux,” Dan Seidman, Tisbury planning board chairman and founding member of the AIPB, said. “How can we as towns come up with uniform zoning that allows for cluster housing? If we don’t have somewhere to put it, it doesn’t matter.”
Mr Seidman acknowledged that increased density will create wastewater and septic demands, which points to locating new developments in the down-Island towns that have infrastructure to handle it. “You put density where density exists,” he said.
“The challenge isn’t finding a location — we have a lot of space in Oak Bluffs,” Mr. Hopkins said. “It’s all about the political will. If we’re going to [build] it in O.B., we have to see support from other towns.”
Chilmark and Aquinnah have relied on low-density, private development on town-leased one-acre lots. Chilmark’s largest development, Middle Line Road, is comprised of six rental duplexes and six one-acre house lots set on 21 acres.
Ms. Malkin floated the concept of regional funding for multi-unit housing that is built in the down-Island towns. Chilmark selectman Warren Doty strongly opposed the idea.
“It would be a terrible idea to support it elsewhere,” he said. “We don’t want 40-unit housing somewhere else and just write a check. Are you kidding? We need 40 units here.”
Mr. Doty expressed skepticism that accessory apartments will make much of a dent in the demand. He also was not enthused about large-scale apartment buildings. “I don’t see making a 40-unit building attractive. I think smaller cluster housing is attractive,” he said.
Tiny houses trumpeted
Mr. Osnoss noted that tiny houses and cluster developments have been a hot topic, but there are many vagaries in zoning bylaws that forbid their use.
“The tiny house is a great example of an energized group, and they’re finding it falls in a gap in the floor,” he said. “Technically they’re an RV. Most every town on the Island has bylaws that prohibit RV parks. Maybe we have to look at those again.”
Mr. Seidman noted that Tisbury was the only town on the Vineyard with zoning that allows for an RV park. It requires a 10-acre parcel with considerable buffer zones, and lots that are 3,000 square feet, which he considered excessive.
“We could look at adapting a similar bylaw for cluster-housing tiny houses on five acres,” he said. He also said that it would be unlikely in his view that the Martha’s Vineyard Commission would approve a mobile home park, and not without good reason.
“We have to balance the character of the Island with the need for more housing,” he said. “There’s the growth issue, and affordability and the reality. The reality is we can’t all live where we want.”
Tisbury planning board member Ben Robinson said that there is an existing inventory of houses on the Island that could help ameliorate the problem without waiting for zoning changes, requiring a town meeting vote, and then going through the long process of permitting and construction.
“A lot of the more affordable houses that go on the market, between $300,000 and $500,000, get snapped up by investors who jack up the rents and make their money in the summer,” he said. “If the towns buy those before they fall out of the stock, we’re going to be creating year-round ownership. It’s not as pretty as ribbon cutting, but takes it out of the investors’ hands.”
In an email to The Times on Monday, Mr. Seidman said the Admiral Benbow Inn, a stately Victorian B&B on the market for $1.5 million, is one such opportunity. “The Benbow Inn could be converted to full-time, single-room occupancy that would add at least nine year-round units to the affordable pool. They could be ideal for younger people just out on their own and older people who are downsizing.”
Mr. Seidman suggested another way to integrate existing housing inventory into solving the problem is to relax zoning for the number of people who can live in a house.
“Some of the elderly and empty-nesters have houses that are paid for, but their income is low,” he said. “If they want to rent four of five bedrooms, that’s a good thing. By allowing them to rent by the bedroom, they supply housing and increase their income. And we’re not adding additional buildings. It’s a win-win.”
Beacon Hill beckons
Mr. Hopkins was adamant that to create substantive change, a united regional planning board from the Island has to actively lobby the State House. “We’re not challenging our legislators about what’s important on the Vineyard,” he said. Mr. Hopkins said some towns in Massachusetts lobby Beacon Hill on a regular basis, and a boat ride is no excuse to not make the effort. He also referenced the recently introduced Senate Bill 122, co-sponsored by Sen. Dan Wolf, intended to streamline permitting and zoning laws that hamper the creation of much-needed mixed-use developments. “This will affect our effectiveness as planning boards,” he said. “We need to educate ourselves about this legislation, and decide, as a regional body, if we support it or not.”
Zoning in the zeitgeist
Legislators on Beacon Hill are eyeing the growing shortage of workforce housing statewide. This past Tuesday, the Joint Committee on Housing heard testimony on a bill that requires all zoning ordinances and bylaws to include districts where multifamily homes are allowed by right. The bill also calls for cluster developments to be permitted with planning board approval.
“We don’t build nearly enough housing to keep up with demand, and when we do, it’s often the wrong type, and it’s often in the wrong place,” Under Secretary of Housing and Community Development Chrystal Kornegay told the State House News Service. The new bill includes an allocation of additional funding to cover the costs of educating children moving into the cluster developments.ter developments.