Trip Barnes pillories affordable housing at MVC

Longtime Island mover later outlines alternate mobile home vision.

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MVC commissioners James Joyce and Joan Malkin listen to a presentation at the commission's meeting Thursday. - Rich Saltzberg

In an abrupt diatribe Thursday night during a meeting of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC), Clarence “Trip” Barnes III, a Tisbury elected commissioner, dubbed Vineyard affordable housing as it stands “a big joke.”

Barnes lashed out at the expense versus return of the ongoing Kuehn’s Way project in Vineyard Haven, and told the commission that in contrast, he’d built three affordable apartments on his own without any cost to others. He also said many Island businesses are addressing the housing problem on their own.

“Every company that has a lot of employees is buying houses to put them in,” he said.

Commission staffer Bill Veno, whose presentation was interrupted by Barnes, agreed that Island employers are taking initiative due to the absence of affordable housing.

“As Trip says, a lot of businesses have undertaken this on their own because it doesn’t exist,” he said.

“I agree with Trip,” commission staffer Christine Flynn said. “We’re failing miserably. There are huge needs, and they are only going to get worse. We’re leading the state — 91 percent of our housing stock are single-family homes. You know we have a lot of zoning issues, a lot of infrastructure issues.” She went on to call the “Island shuffle” and couch-surfing “cute names” for homelessness.

Reached after the meeting by telephone for clarification on his position, Barnes again railed on the cost of the Kuehn’s Way development, arguing that it has cost $6 million thus far and will produce only 40 beds, and that years have gone by and nothing is yet built.

He further bashed the current Island scheme of affordable housing subsidies and the “bureaucrats” managing them. He proposed what he deemed an alternative based on mobile or “manufactured” homes.

“The polite word for a mobile home is a tiny house,” Barnes said. A grouping of them could serve as the first of a two-part step for Islanders to access affordable housing, he said. His notion would prioritize “well-behaved, young, struggling people” and “not the lottery system,” he said. The mobile homes would be situated on land given by the Island towns, and entry into them would be vetted by a board composed of a school nurse, a respected senior police official, a minister, and a handful of other Islanders. If the tenants remained in the mobile homes for five years, he suggested that $700 of each month’s rent over the course of the half decade ($42,000) be returned to the tenants for use as a down payment on a house. The remaining balance would be kept for the upkeep costs of the community.

The second step of his scheme, also on town-donated land, he said, would involve “small, two-story houses” that look “like a shotgun house” that are arranged in a community modeled after the Camp Meeting Association. The land beneath the houses would be subject to a ground lease, he said. Former mobile homers could buy into these houses cheaply. He estimated the houses would cost $150,000 to $175,000, and could be sold back into the pool or passed to a family member.

Barnes said he preferred the idea of building such a community in a grassroots manner similar to how the Agricultural Hall in West Tisbury was erected. He said he thought Islanders ponying up labor and material of their own volition was the best way to realize such a community.

Barnes’ West Tisbury housing
Behind his house on State Road in West Tisbury, Trip Barnes rents three affordable apartments in a building he described as made completely from salvaged materials. He built the three-unit apartment building with two friends in 2006 and 2007, he said, after a bit of wrangling with the town of West Tisbury. The three apartments rent for $3,200 taken together, he said. He declined to state individual rents because, he said, they can vary. The sash windows in the building were taken from late Gazette owner Henry Hough’s Edgartown home, he said, and all the units had electric heat, with one also possessing a wood stove. One unit, which features many reclaimed wooden surfaces, is currently available, he said. As an addition to a barn adjacent to the apartment building, Barnes said he had hoped to construct a fourth affordable apartment, but he could not muster interest from town officials.

Reached by telephone, Island Housing Trust (IHT) executive director Philippe Jordi declined to respond to Barnes’ comments on Kuehn’s Way. In past interviews with The Times, Jordi has cited NIMBYism as exacerbating IHT’s struggle to realize the Kuehn’s Way affordable housing project. He has also stated that the Island’s lack of affordable housing is acute and that the level of commitment needed to change that dynamic is inadequate.