Editorial : A fresh approach on housing
We have taken note recently of the collapse of two promising affordable housing efforts. The private Cozy Hearth, 11-acre, 11-lot proposal in Edgartown and Bridge Housing's 14.8-acre, 22-unit plan in Tisbury are both kaput, the site of each development now for sale.
The Bridge Housing Corporation, a small nonprofit organization of mainly religious groups, had been working since 2002 on its plan for Bridge Commons, off State Road just east of the Scottish Bakehouse. The Cozy Hearth group, a collection of friends, family, and co-workers who chipped in to buy the wooded acreage along the Edgartown-West Tisbury Road where they planned to cluster houses for themselves, also began their long affordable housing journey in 2002.
"It is with great frustration and disappointment that the Bridge board has made this decision," executive director Dick Mezger said last week. He added that the delays in the legal process involved with abutters, plus extra expenses, the carrying cost of the project, the change in the mix needed for affordability requirements, and declines in grant money, left Bridge Housing with a big site purchase coming due and no money.
The two projects had similar experiences. Throughout Cozy Hearth's history, the project attracted opposition from neighbors off Watcha Path and Oyster-Watcha Road. The issues were density and traffic. For both Bridge Housing and Cozy Hearth, their regional permitting efforts were successful, but expensive and time consuming. Bridge Housing faced legal action from neighbors. Cozy Hearth faced legal opposition from the Edgartown zoning board of appeals, which demanded that the 11 planned, clustered house lots be reduced by two. Cozy Hearth said that the reduction, combined with the expense associated with regional permitting conditions that included cost add-ons, would make the plan uneconomic.
In the end, both plans became uneconomic, and both have capitulated to years of delays, added expense, and neighborhood hostility.
Bradley Square - an affordable housing slash historic preservation slash model redevelopment project in Oak Bluffs - has traveled a long, winding, expensive road. The plan, which incorporates thoughtful architectural design, a dedication to neighborliness and community-mindedness, and a nonprofit business model, has been a regulatory success. But, nevertheless, the road has been paved with time-consuming, implacable, and inexplicable opposition from some neighbors, who have relented, or perhaps not. But the carrying costs have been imposing, and although a ceremonial groundbreaking took place recently, the project is uneconomic, absent a significant further fundraising success.
In Chilmark, millions and years have been invested in a town plan to develop a mere 12 affordable housing units on 21 acres of land. The town envisions six units to rent and six to own. Construction has not begun. If one were to add the cash value of the subsidies that will be furnished to the eventual inhabitants of these houses to the value of the land made available for the project, the sum 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 town is the developer, in order to control the process and the outcome. The project is uneconomic, except insofar as taxpayers remain willing and able to say yes.
This is not to say that there have not been affordable housing successes. There have been, and each family that now has a proper roof over its head represents a solid advance by the well-intentioned and committed forces that devote themselves to the creation of needed housing. Still, the Island's approach to the creation of affordable housing needs rethinking. After all, if density concerns shape the effort and if, as a consequence, voters and leaders in the six towns have decided that condos, rental apartment complexes, small building lots, and dormitory housing for seasonal workers are all off limits, the affordable housing effort is hobbled from the get-go. And, if public funds and private donations will be the only finance engines allowed to underwrite efforts to satisfy the need for affordable Island housing, the demand for subsidy dollars will be extraordinary and its increasingly limited availability will choke off many affordable housing initiatives.
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 approach to growth, density, and economic development. That approach asks us to encourage reasonable growth, reasonable increases in density, and variety in types of residential construction. And, we must understand that economic development and diversification can lead to well-paid jobs for needed workers, who can then become long-term neighbors and friends, with all the advantages so many of us already enjoy.