Along with healthcare, education, and freedom from fear, the adequate supply of housing for all of our neighbors is a fundamental and high priority of the healthy community we are committed to building. And we believe that policy makers need to undertake, or actively support others in undertaking, the creation of the needed housing supply. Either way, we believe that it is the obligation of the policy leadership of Martha’s Vineyard to do what is needed.
The adverse dynamics of Martha’s Vineyard’s housing shortage are not in effect for comparatively wealthy folks with resources divorced from the Island’s year-round economy — seasonal residents, transplants, and retirees from off-Island business lives, nonprofit organizations, and others who have the wherewithal to buy into Martha’s Vineyard’s heated real estate market.
While we like the newcomers, and we benefit from their affinity for the Island, an unintended market consequence of their interest in us is to both diminish the housing stock for sale and raise its prices, while their off-Island resources insulate them from price challenges. The resultant housing shortage affects current year-round workers, young and older Vineyarders (and so, families in each generation), and it also shapes the Island’s capacity to attract the workers it needs, in fields like healthcare, education, public safety, and retail and service.
The Island needs housing which is affordable for folks who work here, what in the mists of the past was known as middle-income housing; we also need to create units with varying degree of subsidy attached for Islanders trying to fit into our economy but earning too little to pay the going rate, or for elderly and disabled Islanders — all part of our community, all part of healthy communities everywhere, but shut out on Martha’s Vineyard because we won’t do the heavy lifting of creating or allowing others to create the housing supply we need.
Our housing gap can’t be closed if our strategies are limited to traditional owner-occupied, large-lot single-family housing. Addressing the shortage needs to cut across all types of housing, including apartments and townhouses, and perhaps group housing for seasonal workers, and it’s a shortage which includes long- and short-term rentals as well as more traditional ownership models. How many communities in America can you remember driving through where you didn’t see apartments and townhouses of various costs, and own/rent models which help absorb the demand found in all normal communities?
It is discouraging that the good start offered by housing production plans (HPPs) developed in each of the Island’s towns under the leadership and the funding support of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission have all, to varying degree, been deflected: more cans kicked down the road.
The good news, though, is that many in the Vineyard community are way ahead of Island selectmen, who always seem to find ways to embrace the most timid of possible approaches, truly leading from behind. Some community members focus on methods of land acquisition, ranging from exhaustive looks at town-owned property to marginal and underused conservation land. Some focus on finance, including variants of the Land Bank transaction-based revenue stream focused on expensive properties, but also on other kinds of property-based fees, as well as on philanthropy. Some look at design and construction opportunities, including small housing units and secondary and tertiary dwellings, but also at reconstruction of existing single-family homes into multi-unit dwellings. Some look at zoning code revisions to accommodate greater density, which in turn promotes energy and construction cost efficiency and helps to preserve open space.
The enthusiasm for these is varied and creative, and is beginning to grow gratifyingly large in ambition and potential. One very interesting new approach, reported on this week by Cameron Machell (“Graduate students study the future of affordable housing on Martha’s Vineyard,” bit.ly/IHTifp), is being investigated by the Vineyard mainstay business Island Food Products, together with Island Housing Trust. IFP partners Adam Bresnick and Jon Roberts are working with Derrill Bazzy from IHT and a team of Harvard and MIT design students to look at affordable housing possibilities for the current IFP site should IFP find a suitable replacement site. Unique on the Island and in the state, this is a very promising model drawing on private partners, as well as a valuable teaching and design exercise.
More far-reaching and more fully developed, long-time Island real estate professional Robert Sawyer has proposed a public-private partnership model in a thoughtful MV Times Op-Ed column (“Our Vineyard housing crisis, thinking outside the box,” Nov. 2; bit.ly/SawyerOp-ed). The column argues persuasively that private developers have a critical role to play in housing development, but won’t participate on the Island unless public bodies of jurisdiction, and especially the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, reach out in real partnership to encourage and actively facilitate a productive private role, along with providing support for selective needed zoning changes supporting higher-density housing sites. If evidence of the role private partners might play is needed, see C.J. Hughes, “The Bronx Is Building,” New York Times, March 5 (bit.ly/Bronxbuilding), describing several major public-private projects currently in development there.
Mr. Sawyer also opens up consideration of financing, and suggests that it may be time to reduce the Land Bank’s 2 percent transaction fee and create a fee to establish a housing bank. The suggestion of such a change signals the opportunity to begin reconsideration of the unique position land conservation has played on Martha’s Vineyard, moving to a more balanced one recognizing the need to protect community members as well as to keep land out of development.
A housing supply gap like ours has the potential to embarrass the community, because we know that solving it is a matter of choice; the tools, the land, and the funds are here in abundance. What’s being tested is our political will. If we don’t take some of the meaningful steps at hand, we should stop trying to kid ourselves, and simply pull up the drawbridge.