Soundings : Synonyms for no
Recently, while reading Sheldon Hackney's engrossing memoir of his misadventures in the American culture wars after being nominated to chair the National Endowment for the Humanities, I came across a paragraph that made me reach for a pencil.
Mr. Hackney is discussing the long fight for racial justice in America, specifically the controversies over affirmative action, when he writes: "We find ourselves as a society in the worst of all situations: the public is tired of the effort, yet the problem isn't solved."
Reading this, I couldn't help but think of affordable housing on Martha's Vineyard.
Sure, we all agree that affordable housing is a problem here, just as we agree that it's important to save the whales, recycle our plastics, and sneeze into our sleeves. But if you measure this community's attitude toward the housing problem by what we do rather than what we say, it's easy to suspect that the sort of issue-fatigue Mr. Hackney writes about may be at play here.
One of the most glaring examples of lip service to the housing problem was Edgartown's handling of the Cozy Hearth project, a private effort to build 11 homes on 10.9 acres south of the regional trash transfer station. The Edgartown zoning board of appeals, while making all the right noises about the need for affordable housing, scaled the project back to nine houses.
Thresholds and tipping points are important things. Don't try to tell a drowning man that there's anything subtle about the distinction between having your head slightly above the water's surface and slightly beneath it. The ZBA's downsizing of Cozy Hearth in 2006 had the effect of stripping the word "affordable" out of the project, leaving it simply as housing - the last thing the Vineyard needs more of.
Bill Bennett, who proposed the Cozy Hearth project, appealed to the Massachusetts Housing Appeals Committee, which threw out the ZBA's conditions, ruling: "We find that the board's conditions in the aggregate make construction of the housing uneconomic."
Edgartown, again protesting that we love affordable housing as much as motherhood and apple pie, appealed the state ruling to Superior Court - and lost a second time. When Edgartown announced its intention to appeal yet again, Mr. Bennett finally threw in the towel. "We can't afford to do this any more," he told this newspaper in June. "I'm not going to spend any more money on legal fees."
There's a saying in the newspaper business that it's unwise to start an argument with a man who buys his ink by the barrel. Similarly, as Bill Bennett found out, it can be unwise to argue with a municipality that gets its money from taxes on $7.6 billion in real estate.
Edgartown didn't need to be right in this case. It needed only to have deeper pockets than Mr. Bennett. The town appealed, and appealed, and appealed, until it accomplished with litigation what it could not do with ZBA restrictions.
Edgartown finally succeeded in rendering Cozy Hearth "uneconomic," just as surely as the NIMBY neighbors of Bridge Commons in Vineyard Haven wore down the ecumenical Bridge Housing Corp. with their years of legal wrangling. In a way, this is a lose-lose situation for the Island. We'll never know how many under-housed Vineyard families we could have helped with all the money that was spent to stop Cozy Hearth and Bridge Commons.
The Cozy Hearth property is now on the market. Look for mansions with pools to pop up there as soon as the stock markets rebound. At least now, that neighbor who lives on his 5.5 acres of inherited property next door can stop worrying about the prospect of houses crammed together on - horrors! - one acre apiece. This guy actually told the Boston Globe, "I don't want to feel like I live in the city."
Edgartown, in many respects, has the most impressive record on affordable housing of any town on the Vineyard. But the issue of density remains a sticking point in our civic dialogue around the issue of housing. The overwhelming reality at the heart of the Island's housing problem is the exorbitant cost of land - which means the judicious use of density will always be an essential part of any strategy to house our community.
Ewell Hopkins, the new director of the Island Affordable Housing Fund, put it succinctly in a recent conversation: "The irony is that we've embraced the idea of density on a commercial level. But we refuse to embrace it in terms of human preservation. I mean, look at Circuit Avenue. What could be more dense?"
What's more dense? I'd say it's us - when we fail to see that each time we say "Yes, but!" to an affordable housing project, and the "but" entails a reduction in density, all we've really done is to slap a veneer of rationalization over an underlying "No."