At Large : Wrong way
If you read the Editorial page across the way, as you should have done, you will have noticed Chris Murphy's letter. Chris, a Chilmarker of long standing, is a member of the Martha's Vineyard Commission. I set Chris's letter apart from the others, because he has written something that strikes me as true and perceptive, importantly so. His description of the misguided nature of an aspect of the well-intentioned campaign to create affordable housing reveals, to me and perhaps to you, the broader and elementary flaw in the conceit we've embraced as the foundation of the affordable housing effort.
In his letter, whose original was addressed to the Chilmark selectmen, Chris discusses the youth lot, a municipal attempt to help young, valuable Islanders find land where they might build houses they could afford. He calls the youth lot effort "the earliest and simplest" initiative in the affordable housing campaign. Chris describes youth lots as a kind of "scholarship, awarded to a few of our local kids to help them achieve full citizenship in their community. It worked." Indeed it did.
Chris argues, as I would, that the bargain struck between the town that offered the youth lot and the young person who received it was a good deal for both. The town determined that making it possible for ambitious young people to commit themselves to the community was a good investment, one worth the assets the town exchanged for the young neighbors' residency. Even as they did so, voters understood there was a risk that the deal might not work out. Still, voters reasoned, youth lots were a fair bargain.
Where I am going next, I suspect Chris would not follow. (We don't see eye to eye on everything, after all.) But, soldiering on, I argue that over the years intervening since the first youth lot recipient hollered yippee, the size of the housing problem has grown, as has the appetite for Vineyard property among the well-heeled in the Eastern Megalopolis. The Martha's Vineyard response has been to resort to planners and rule makers and their natural derivative, development regulation. We have demanded large lots and low density. We've discouraged multi-unit, condo-type development. We have abetted the market trends, protecting high and growing real estate values, and driving them higher.
We have stopped the creation of half-acre, three-quarter acre, and acre and a half lots. These are the house lots that many of our friends and lifelong neighbors, including teachers, nurses, police, and small business owners could afford to buy and build on in the 1970s and early 1980s. Some summer visitors, not the celebrated rich, also took advantage of these modest opportunities, figuring one day to retire here.
We have planned and regulated this modest chance at a place to live out of existence. It can't happen any more. And, because nearly everything nowadays is a development of regional impact, sited on priority habitat, the limited efforts town voters have made to liberalize development rules, to encourage the construction of affordable dwellings, have come to very little, in the welter of multi-layer reviews, chaotic multi-part public hearings, and swelling permitting costs.
Add to all this the widespread restraint on business expansion, so that well-paying, year-round jobs in good, growing companies have not kept pace with the escalating cost of living. Then throw in the expansion of conservation land, and you have a surefire recipe for the high price of real estate and of Vineyard living in general. Forced, as we have been over the last few years, to recognize the affordable housing problem, we've relentlessly set aside a good bargain for a perverse one.
Confronting the expanded need for moderately priced housing but unwilling to increase housing density, the earnest, high-minded, and energetic efforts to develop affordable housing for moderate income Islanders has became almost exclusively a publicly funded effort, or a public and private nonprofit effort, using tax dollars, private donations, grants and in-kind gifts. The array of significant rental subsidies and downright immense subsidies for housing recipients who might buy affordable structures now control outcomes. Household incomes must handsomely exceeded federal housing guidelines to qualify for this shelter. And, all this comes with restrictions that severely constrain the future prosperity of the recipient families and of their offspring, while they support the high prices in the private real estate market.
The result? We control our housing environment at a high cost to a subsidized fraction of our very neighbors, who accept diminished future prospects in exchange for a roof over their heads.
Of the lucky recipients of the early youth lots, Chris writes, "We did not ask them to stay poor forever or to keep their children poor. Just the opposite. We hoped they would prosper and most of them have."
There's an outcome in which a community might understandably take pride.