At Large : Whose job is it, after all?
We're focused on the troubles at the Island Affordable Housing Fund (IAHF) and the consequent troubles for the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority's (RHA) rental housing subsidy program. It's understandable of course. This is a terrible disappointment, terribly timed to cloud what we'd rather be a bright and promising Christmas season. It compromises, or may compromise, the necessary shelter enjoyed by some of our neighbors.
After all, it is December, the current fiscal year doesn't end till June 30, 2010, and, as of now, money the RHA can count on will serve only until February. The beneficiaries of the subsidy program need assured rental housing till the end of the fiscal year and beyond. The community feels the urge to help, and it will. Some among us also feel the need to scold.
It is the case that the modern way in our society - and especially in our modern Vineyard society - is to look for villains and villainous practices, when upsets like this occur. In some onlookers, the villains and the villainies have been determined. They are the do-gooding, non-professional leaders of IAHF, the departed professional manager of that organization, or the leaders of the Island Housing Trust. And, it is the close interplay of volunteer board members, paid managers, tax benefit seeking donors, tradesmen connected to the leadership of these organization, and volunteer town committee members in control of thousands of tax or surtax dollars. Many of these organizations are legally structured private, nonprofits. At the same time, most of them are beneficiaries at times and in apparently democratically blessed ways of public funds and public decisions. Making them not quite public nonprofits but not quite private ones either.
I don't think much of this public chastisement is warranted, especially not from those whose shrill alarms begin, "Of course we don't know the facts yet, but..." The volunteer leaders of all these organizations are committed to the affordable housing cause. The professional staffs are as well. All are devoted to the endless fundraising that now underwrites so much of what each of these organizations accomplishes. All recognize their fundraising for the fragile thing it is, especially when vital goals depend so heavily on variable and uncertain fundraising success, and not in any large part contributed by year-round Islanders.
On the other hand, it is true that the circle of volunteer leaders, trustees, directors, fundraisers, and favored builders is a small one. One day, a few years ago, John Abrams visited me to discuss why it was all right for him to be the chairman of IAHF, the chief fundraiser for a project, the principal architect, and the head of the building company to execute the plan. John was clear that the fund, a private nonprofit, saw no conflict of interest and, more important, saw great advantages in streamlining the process of getting its important work done. For his part, John saw many advantages to the private, nonprofit approach to affordable housing. We discussed two of them.
One was that the housing that would be built with the funds raised by IAHF and according to the design preferences the suited the fund's leaders. He described the conceptual underpinnings of those design preferences as consistent with Vineyard character and scale. The other was that doing affordable housing with local funding, in small-project ways, under the auspices of private nonprofits, ruled out the possibility that if, in contrast, state and federal funding were used, non-Islanders might be interested and eligible for the housing. Vineyard housing might attract non-Vineyarders. He applauded the efforts of Island Elderly Housing to build subsidized rental housing for elderly Islanders and others, using mostly federal grant funds, but he saw the interloper possibility and the conventional design concepts as serious obstacles to similar efforts to develop affordable shelter for working Islanders.
The power of John's commitment and the record of his accomplishments on behalf of affordable housing on Martha's Vineyard are inspiring, admirable, and selfless. As are the commitments, similar in quality but different in kind, by the likes of Candy daRosa, Bob Wheeler, Richard Leonard, Allan Gowell, Ted Morgan and so many others. None of this means that the expensive Bradley Square project may have been a reach too far, that the approach taken by these organizations may have been more expensive - when land value, construction cost, mortgage subsidies are thrown in, subsidy levels of more than $175,000 per unit have been reached - than is wise, that the mix of subsidized rental housing and subsidized housing for sale may have been off, and that the pace of housing development has been slower than necessary to meet the need.
All of which leads me to the argument that a rethinking of the affordable housing dilemma needs to take place on a public, not a private, nonprofit level. After all, this is a public, community problem, not a problem made exclusively for solution by a small group of interconnected, similarly inclined, private citizens and whatever summer Islanders may be persuaded to put up the money.
Like the Martha's Vineyard Commission's Island Plan, developed by a small coterie of like-minded, self-referential residents, summer and year-round; like the splendid, new $42 million Martha's Vineyard Hospital, built with funds contributed mostly by summer residents; like the splendid $11 million Y, built with mostly non-year-round dollars; like Martha's Vineyard Community Services and the VNA, doing this community's business - big, and vital business - with a cobbled together amalgam of insurance money, state and federal grants, and a big boost from well-to-do summer residents and their friends. Like so much we year-round taxpayers count on, including 50 cents on the dollar for every municipal expenditure, Islanders have grown accustomed to recognizing the problems that hedge their Vineyard lives and then accustomed also to letting small groups of hard-bitten volunteers do the work that is paid for mostly by wealthy, part-time neighbors. It does call into question our repeated self-celebration of the community's generous neighborliness.
Housing, nursing, social services, medical care, even swimming pools are among the ingredients of a community, and most communities expect to pay for them. We don't.u