Editorial : Wrong track
In the national political battles, we voters hear a lot about right track/wrong track polling. It's a way of testing popular judgment on the performance of incumbent leaders or current policies. Here, there is no right track/wrong track guidance available to Islanders on the big political questions that concern them, and only them. But, there are several signs, if you're inclined to read them as we do, that the affordable housing juggernaut of recent years has gotten off the track and needs a course correction.
When we grade the many affordable housing efforts undertaken over the past several years, we award the best grades to Island Elderly Housing and to Morgan Woods, two well-managed, sharply targeted, and nimbly executed developers of significant affordable housing for folks who really need it. Then there is Habitat for Humanity. Not a big player on the scene, but, like the bigger organizations we've mentioned, a targeted, accomplished, mechanism for housing those most in need. Next there are some small-scale in-town projects, especially in Edgartown and Tisbury, which insert affordable housing in neighborhoods that can accommodate such change. In these cases, the numbers are small, the families served are often better off than the tenants of IEH or Morgan Woods, or the recipients of Habitat housing, where part of the down payment is sweat equity.
Until the recent efforts to apply perpetual affordable housing restrictions to resident homesites, we have generally regarded the widespread practice as an effective method of helping townspeople who need help establishing themselves in Island housing. The restrictions on the growth in market value of such homesites is, we think, perverse, in that it establishes a class of neighbors, who may live here, vote here, and serve the community's needs but not enjoy the growth in real estate wealth that has benefited so many Islanders over the years.
Three efforts now underway strike us as examples of how affordable housing efforts have gotten off the track. First is the Bradley Square plan, which is estimable in so many ways - it is a very well designed enhancement to an in-town neighborhood that needs enhancement, a contributor to historic preservation, and a support to the neighborhood's self-conceived art concentration. Still, this is not an affordable housing project, and it is not one that should have occupied so much of the resources and energy of the project's joint venturers. Morgan Woods is affordable housing, Habitat houses are affordable housing, shelter subsidized to the tune of $175,000 per unit is not affordable housing, by any reasonable understanding of how such housing ought to be created.
The Island Affordable Housing Fund's (IAHF) solicitation of Island businesses to seize the opportunity to pick an approved applicant from the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority (RHA) waiting list to get a house in the 250 State Road, West Tisbury, project is also off the track. The pressure to make such schemes as this work comes from the need for enormous subsidies. After all, if the voters and leaders in the six towns have decided that condos, rental apartment complexes, and small building lots are all off limits, and if public funds and private donations will be the only engines allowed to satisfy the need for affordable Island housing, the demand for subsidy dollars will be extraordinary and its limited availability will choke off many affordable housing initiatives.
In Chilmark, the town has struggled for years to do something for affordable housing. But, its plan to use 21 acres of public land for 12 housing units, six to be owned, six to be rented, is certainly off the track. Add the cash value of the subsidies furnished the one-day inhabitants of these houses to the value of the land made available for the project, and the total amounts to subsidized affordable housing run amok. It's not so much an affordable housing enterprise as it is a strategy to defend high Chilmark property values and large lot zoning.
The argument here is that the affordable housing deficiency on Martha's Vineyard will not be overcome by subsidy alone. The solution lies in a fresh and honest approach to growth, density, and economic development. Encouraging reasonable growth, reasonable increases in density and variety in types of residential construction, and especially recognizing that economic development and diversification can lead to well-paid jobs for needed workers, who can become long-term neighbors and friends, with all the advantages so many of us have benefited from and fewer limits and controls than current off-track efforts at increasing the modestly priced housing supply offer.