Soundings : Hits and errors
The batsman, watching his drive bounce onto the warning track with an outfielder in pursuit, begins to sprint for that extra base. Only a perfect throw, he thinks, can catch him. But both throw and tag are perfect, and he's out at third.
Joe Garagiola, in his days as a broadcaster, used to describe plays like these as "errors of enthusiasm." When an infielder muffs an easy grounder, Joe said, the manager has every right to be steamed. It's harder to stay angry at an athlete who goes for the big play with such drive and commitment, and who almost makes it.
For Martha's Vineyard's many affordable housing agencies and organizations, the last decade has seen a remarkable outpouring of energy and enthusiasm. The learning curve has been steep; some ideas have gained traction while others have flopped. An essential constant, through it all, has been a willingness to try new things - to keep and refine what works, to adjust or jettison what doesn't.
In the housing field on Martha's Vineyard, what we're seeing is enthusiasm in the pursuit of practical experience. The urgency of this moment requires, I'd argue, a healthy willingness occasionally to fail and look a bit silly.
One recent bit of silliness was this year's attempt to sell the tenth house at Jenney Way in Edgartown by way of a lottery. The plan was to sell 600 tickets for $1,000 apiece, award the house to one lucky bettor, and use the profits for affordable housing. The first problem here was that for the people who most need housing, $1,000 isn't exactly discretionary cash. The second was that this fundraising lottery threatened to taint the established way in which affordable homes and lots are awarded. Housing agencies have for years relied on lotteries - not as the state does, to take money from suckers, but out of necessity, because the applicants vastly outnumber the available homes. That's a subtle distinction, however, and housing advocates probably did themselves more harm than good with the Jenney Way sweepstakes.
But consider, for a counter-example, the Island Affordable Housing Fund's decision last year to abandon the established format of its summer Houses on the Move fundraiser and instead launch Housing on the Tube, a telethon on Plum TV. That was a brave leap, and I'm sure I wasn't alone in worrying that it wouldn't work out. In fact it was a thumping success in its first year, raising more than $500,000 - and even bigger this summer, raising more than $1 million. So here's an idea that housing advocates brainstormed and ran with, and bully for them.
Recently the Island Affordable Housing Fund, and the agencies it works with from the Vineyard Housing Office in Tisbury, have tried to stretch a few doubles into triples with approaches that might be described as either "thinking outside the box" or "flying off the tracks," depending upon whether your take is positive or negative.
Mediated talks with concerned neighbors of Bradley Square in Oak Bluffs seem to have saved the project. It's an admirable project, but one which was a reach for its developers from the get-go. Looking ahead, Bradley Square will probably define an outer boundary for housing advocates - the boundary beyond which it's better simply to walk away and spend the money elsewhere.
The Housing Fund created controversy recently by offering to let Island businesses, with a donation of between $50,000 and $75,000, pick a name of their choice from the waiting list of people qualified to buy an affordable home. This is all about trying to bring new money into the working pool of funds for housing, which is a fine goal. Problem is, it also smacks of unfairness, and there's a real question of which Island employers, if any - the hospital, perhaps, or the school district? - can afford a donation of that size. (In fact, nobody picked up on this deal.)
The Edgartown housing committee had a recent run-in with the Martha's Vineyard Commission when it proposed something new, accepting $1.8 million from the developers of a large, high-end subdivision rather than the gift of lots inside the plan. The committee won that skirmish, and now has proposed the creation of an Edgartown housing trust to receive and use this money to meet the community's housing needs. That plan is up for vote at a special town meeting this Tuesday, Dec. 9. It's a solid proposal, promising the biggest possible bang for Edgartown's housing buck. This new idea, if you'll pardon one last baseball metaphor, is a home run.
Oh, and it wasn't Joe Garagiola but the author Anatole France who first wrote: "I prefer the errors of enthusiasm to the indifference of wisdom." If we're to make any dent in this problem of housing costs that is threatening to decimate our community, we'll need to imagine and test a host of strategies involving government, private enterprise and the nonprofit sector. Along the way, we'll doubtless be reminded that sometimes the secret of success is failing repeatedly, with enthusiasm.
Certainly we need to learn from what doesn't work. We also need to celebrate our successes. And always, we should credit the commitment and energy of those who are engaged in this most urgent work of building a sustainable Island future.