The seven-year Bridge Housing effort is ended
Seven years ago representatives from the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center and Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Unitarian, Congregational, and Federated churches united in a nonsectarian cause: affordable housing.
The group formed the nonprofit Bridge Housing Corporation (BHC) in 2002 and launched an initiative to build Bridge Commons, a Chapter 40B affordable housing project with a total of 22 homes in 11 two-family buildings.
That effort ended last week. The BHC board announced its decision to put the 14.8-acre Bridge Commons site at State and Deer Hill roads in Tisbury on the market, closing the doors on the affordable housing project before it was even built.
"We've run out of financial resources and can't pay the interest on the loan," BHC executive director Dick Mezger said in a phone call last week.
The most recent extension of BHC's site purchase loan from Boston Community Capital comes due on October 30. Although the loan interest payment drove the board's decision to sell the property, Mr. Mezger said the recession's effect on the real estate market, funding subsidies that never came through, legal battles with abutters, changes in the state's focus to rental properties, and the project's carrying costs all played a part.
Building a Bridge
"All in all, we're grieving over the loss of the project," BHC board member Isaac (Ike) Russell of West Tisbury said in a phone call Tuesday.
Mr. Russell, an attorney who formerly worked on several affordable housing ventures in Hartford, was one of BHC's original founders and a board member from the start.
The founders first named themselves the Housing Action Group. "But then we changed that to the Housing Ecumenical Action Team, for obvious reasons," Mr. Russell said with a chuckle. "HEAT is a wonderful acronym; HAG is not." The non-profit BHC was created several months later under normal corporation laws as the group's "action arm."
"We just knew we wanted to build something here," Mr. Russell said. "And one of the things we felt is that there is no one building affordable housing. We can do it."
BHC pioneered the concept of a Chapter 40B affordable housing project to Island planners. The state statute helps encourage the construction of affordable housing projects by allowing their developers to bypass some local zoning restrictions.
"What we're most grateful for is, of course, the Tisbury Zoning Board of Appeals for saying yes to Bridge Commons, and that was hard to do, because neighbors on each side didn't want it," Mr. Russell said. The ZBA approved the project in November 2004.
The MVC's approval of the Bridge Commons project in June 2003 was appreciated as well, Mr. Russell said, given that the commissioners had not yet had anybody apply for a permit under the Chapter 40B statute.
Despite Bridge Commons's demise, Mr. Russell said, "We ought not to feel that we've been useless, because now there are other people who have built affordable housing, and can and are willing, and who know the state programs and what 40B or a comprehensive permit process is."
The economic reality
In a September 10 press release, Mr. Mezger explained that BHC had counted on use of substantial state and federal grant monies to make the Bridge project work. Subsidies from the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) Home Program and the Affordable Housing Trust Fund (AHTF) were expected to amount to more than $1.5 million.
Significant declines in the financial and real estate markets over the past year, however, led DHCD to shift its energies and resources to affordable rental housing properties instead of home ownership projects like Bridge Commons. New federal stimulus funds also are aimed at rental housing.
Consequently, Mr. Mezger said DHCD and AHTF would probably not seek grant applications for homeownership projects like Bridge Commons until 2010, if then. And in the meantime, BHC would be unable to afford the carrying costs of the site purchase loan.
Since it would take 12 to 15 months to convert Bridge Commons to a rental model, lack of finances also ruled out that option.
Mr. Russell said the board's decision several years ago to make Bridge Commons a homeownership rather than rental housing project was a philosophical one.
"The American public and we ourselves felt that homeownership was a wonderful thing for a family," he said. "It's a rite of passage and although not everybody can go that way, if you do, you feel you are a substantial citizen. And we thought that as a result, homeowners would take care of their property and be proud of it."
"Then along came Edgartown and it did Morgan Woods, which I think was a stroke of genius," Mr. Russell continued. "I think rental is a very, very sensible way to go, and in retrospect, I think I wish we'd done rentals. But that's only in retrospect."
Pursuing every avenue before deciding to sell the Bridge Commons property, BHC's board also worked with development and construction consultants to see whether the project could be restructured to do without DHCD grant funds.
But the real estate market's decline makes it difficult to sell higher-priced homes that would still be affordable to lower income families, Mr. Mezger said. And lower sales proceeds from an "all affordable" development increase the need for significant DHCD grant funding.
Fewer resources to share
In the meantime, BHC also had been counting on some grant money from the Island Affordable Housing Fund (IAHF).
"And they ran into problems, too," Mr. Mezger said. "They did prioritize some other projects, such as Bradley Square and 250 State Road, which disappointed us some, and they are now scrambling considerably to make those projects work. In fact, if I remember correctly, the groundbreaking for Bradley Square was not for construction but for fundraising for that project."
Despite that, Mr. Russell said he did not feel that other Island affordable housing groups let Bridge Commons down and that they did their best.
The BHC board was grateful to the IAHF for giving them their first grant of $25,000 several years ago, Mr. Russell said, which was the first public vote of confidence in Bridge housing.
Although BHC had hoped to get significant funding over time from IAHF, Mr. Russell said that did not happen because the organization now builds its own projects, rather than being a conduit for other people's projects.
"So it's hard for an outside third-party developer of affordable housing like Bridge, because their attention would of course go to their own projects, and that's what's happened," he said.
Both Mr. Russell and Mr. Mezger said BHC has not given up on finding a partner or buyer for the Bridge Commons property that will maintain some amount of affordable housing on the site. BHC plans to market the property to firms and organizations that specialize in affordable housing development, Mr. Mezger said.
"Bridge Commons is still not lost, but the lender has to be paid, so we have to find someone else to come in," Mr. Russell said. "And that someone could redesign the project, reduce the number of homes, change it from home ownership to rental, have some of the parcels sold, or change everything to single-family homes, which may turn out to be a better design attraction."
The demise of Bridge Commons follows closely after that of Cozy Hearth, another affordable housing project that never came to fruition. Island businessman Bill Bennett proposed the self-funded Cozy Hearth initiative as an individual, not a developer.
In 2002 he and some of his employees, friends, and family members pooled resources to purchase three parcels totaling almost 11 acres off Watcha Path in Edgartown to build their own affordable housing. Their plan hinged on subdividing the property into 11 lots for 11 houses, under the terms of Chapter 40B.
Although the project was approved by the MVC, a 2006 decision by the Edgartown ZBA required that it be scaled back from 11 to 9 homes, which Mr. Bennett said would make it economically unfeasible. After nearly three years of legal wrangling, Mr. Bennett pleaded no contest on May 14, 2009, to the ZBA's third appeal of a court ruling in his favor. The land is now on the market as three parcels.