Sharp fall in construction, small rise in hope
An analysis of building permits issued in Martha's Vineyard's most populous towns confirms with hard data just how severely the region's economic woes have hit the construction industry. By the end of 2007, the Vineyard construction boom was already tilting toward bust, but in 2008, new construction, especially single-family homes, slowed to a level that left contractors who once turned away lots of work suddenly scrambling to compete for scarce projects. Others turned to smaller jobs, such as renovations and home weatherization.
In Edgartown, the building department issued 393 permits in 2007, covering everything from fences to multi-million dollar commercial projects. Of those permits, 95 were for new single family homes. Last year, the town issued 227 permits. Only 31 were for single-family homes - a 67-percent decrease from the previous year.
In Tisbury the total number of permits rose slightly from 2007 to 2008, but the permits for single-family homes fell 43 percent, from 31 to 18.
In West Tisbury, the number of single-family home permits fell from 27 to 7, a decrease of 74 percent.
In Oak Bluffs, building officials report the number of single-family home permits rose from year to year, from 16 to 27. However, a new computer tracking system implemented in 2007 make those statistics suspect. Building officials concede that some data was entered incorrectly, and could not produce an accurate list of all permits issued for 2007 or 2008.
Building department officials say the downward trend in building activity has continued into the first few months of 2009.
Whether it is wishful thinking, warmer weather, a new president, or the start of an upward trend remains to be seen, but a sampling of local contractors and merchants indicate that there is at least a twinkle of light at the end of the tunnel.
"I think there's some pent-up demand," said John Jones, a Vineyard Haven contractor. "People are starting to worry that we've hit bottom, and they want to get in."
He also pointed to a federal Community Development Block Grant program, which distributed more than $600,000 last year to low and middle income Island families. The money comes in the form of a loan that does not have to be paid back if the owner remains in the home for 15 years. It covers weatherization and energy-related home improvement.
"A lot of that's going to get spent here in the next year, and that's going to help," said Mr. Jones. "That will help excavators and renovation contractors." The federal program is expanding. Administrators expect to award more than $1 million to local property owners this year.
Wayne Guyther, owner of HN Hinckley and Sons, is cautious about reading too much into an uptick in business at the lumber and building supply dealer in Vineyard Haven. "Things had really slowed down at the end of the year," he said. "I think the start of the year was pretty slow. Things have definitely picked up in the spring, but whether it returns to the levels of last year, I don't know."
Mr. Guyther says that some people are still waiting to move forward with projects, and in some cases they are trying to renegotiate deals with contractors. "I think there are a lot of projects in the wings," he said. "People have been cautious, maybe put the foundation in but not gone ahead with the project."
Statistics compiled by the U.S. Census bureau lend support to the idea that the construction industry is turning around. Nationwide, construction of new single-family homes rose 22-percent in February, as compared to the month before. The number of housing starts in February is still 47 percent below February of 2008.
State unemployment statistics show that the loss of jobs, many in the construction industry, are affecting Martha's Vineyard more severely than the rest of the state. The Island's unemployment rate for February was 11.0 percent. The rate for February of 2008 was 6.1 percent. Statewide, the unemployment rate for last month was 8.3 percent.