Neighbors' Voices : One answer is permanent local public funding
We say goodbye to 2009, with a glance at the exhausted year and a look forward to the fresh one.
As has been its practice for many years, The Times invited selected Island leaders and community members to review some of the accomplishments and challenges of the year that is about to end and to consider what may lie ahead in 2010.
John Abrams is the president of South Mountain Company, an employee-owned design/build and energy services company in West Tisbury. He has been in the thick of affordable housing efforts and served on a number of community boards and panels, including the Island Affordable Housing Fund board and the Martha's Vineyard Commission's Island Plan steering committee.
This may be remembered as a year of trouble and controversy in the Vineyard affordable housing community. We ran into an iceberg in the middle of the night.
There are lessons to be learned.
It's not that a large collection of dedicated volunteers who have made great progress should have done better. Some things might have been done differently, and greater transparency will strengthen the cause, but the real lesson is more systemic than that. Land conservation efforts on the Vineyard were difficult too at one time, but a tremendous public commitment emerged with the formation of the Land Bank. Its steady funding source made constant progress possible and freed the conservation nonprofits to concentrate on their areas of expertise. Affordable housing needs a similar public commitment. It hasn't happened yet; if it had, there would be financial resilience and we would not have the troubles that we do.
Housing activists have always maintained that private donations - as essential and generous as they have been - could never be sufficient to solve the problem. We worked hard to fund the operations of the public Dukes County Regional Housing Authority - before that time the public agency didn't even have full time staffing - and then worked hard to get the towns to take it over. They did, appropriately, after some initial reluctance. We worked hard to fund rental subsidies for many years; now the towns will need to take over this responsibility more quickly than expected. We worked hard to successfully put the Community Preservation Act in place Vineyard-wide. We worked hard to get housing bank legislation passed on Beacon Hill, but that's a no go so far.
Despite its complexity and without proper public funding, the Vineyard affordable housing landscape has, in the last decade, undergone a dramatic transformation: from a few seedlings in barren soil to lush growth in a fertile garden. Why?
Because it matters so much.
The year 2000 was the turning point: the Preserving Community: Housing Our Island Families conference inspired many people to act. Small successes began to have big ripples.
Before that time we had few models, no needs assessment, no active town affordable housing committees, no full-time staffing at housing organizations, no Community Preservation Act, no permanent affordability restrictions, no rental conversion program, no house moves, no Habitat for Humanity chapter, no Island Housing Trust, no Land Bank/affordable housing collaborations, no down payment assistance programs, and no money.
We have all those things now. Except money. We've never had enough, and the economic tsunami means there's even less.
But plenty has been raised and spent to good purpose; a rich legacy of accomplishment is behind us.
In 2001, when the Island Affordable Housing Fund commissioned an Island-wide needs assessment, consultant John Ryan portrayed a stark crisis with larger dimensions than previously known. In 2005, in an update, Ryan said that ". . . although the median home price has grown ten times faster than wage increases, the Island's residents have made remarkable progress, creating 95 new ownership opportunities, 83 year round rentals, with another 165 units permitted, in litigation, or in construction. There's reason to hope and celebrate."
In the five years since there has been another remarkable string of successes Island-wide, but there is plenty more to do.
Some say it's all about zoning; I'm not convinced. Most of the completed affordable housing has had land costs of zero to $40,000 per house. We'll never achieve that through zoning. If a buildable lot costs $250,000, and you double the density, in theory that means each would cost $125,000 - still way too much. Greater density helps, and we need zoning changes and incentives, but they alone will never make the entire difference.
The essential need is still a permanent source of public funding. I want to make four fundamental suggestions regarding the use of the money, regardless of its source.
Affordable housing needs deep subsidies
The market can't possibly do the job. Even with the real estate downturn, the affordability gap between the median cost of an Island home and what a family at median income can afford remains in six figures.
Those who argue that the market can take care of it should consider that 1) subsidies have always been an essential aspect of affordable housing success (the G.I bill after World War II was the greatest affordable housing subsidy ever; it helped to house the families of our returning soldiers and fuel the post-war economy), and 2) that most of us are the happy beneficiaries of housing subsidies (by far the largest current housing subsidy in America - roughly $110 billion a year - is the mortgage interest deduction, a classic upside-down subsidy which has no benefit for the millions of renters who really need it). We need to redirect our public housing investment so it helps those who need it.
Affordability restrictions are at the heart of the matter
Making affordable housing is worthwhile because our efforts are leading, over time, to the creation of a large pool of permanently affordable housing available not only to this generation of Islanders, but to future generations. If affordability restrictions are not permanent, we create an affordable housing treadmill (and a windfall for a few lucky people) rather than a re-useable resource.
As Vineyard housing activists and town housing committees came to understand this essential housing truth, perpetual limited equity deed restrictions became the norm.
Some call it second class homeownership, but scores of people sign up for housing lotteries and shed tears of joy when they become owners of homes with deed restrictions. There's an interesting corollary: when real estate is de-commodified by caps on appreciation, we begin to see the kind of homeownership that some can remember from the 1950s and before: real estate as the family home rather than real estate as investment. People expect it to stay in their family for generations and they beautify, improve, and maintain.
To be truly affordable, housing must be of the highest quality
The American obsession with low first cost is short-term thinking at its worst. It produces shoddy housing that turns out to be distinctly un-affordable due to high maintenance and energy costs. Our affordable housing must be the highest quality and highest performance housing we can make to assure that it is truly forever affordable. Difficult as this is, we should accept no compromise on this one; zero energy should always be our ultimate goal.
Deep Energy Retrofits are essential for existing homes
There are roughly 16,000 existing houses on the Vineyard. The more we can use them to satisfy the need for affordable housing the better. Buying down the cost of existing houses with subsidy funds makes sense, but without retrofitting for low maintenance and deep energy reductions, these homes will become big money pits for their owners. The deep energy retrofit is the key to the widespread use of existing homes. This is not a trivial undertaking - it is very expensive, and we have a lot to learn about how to do it well.
To summarize: when the market fails, finding funding and spending it productively is the answer. It's not a job for any one sector. Solutions will come only when 1) we learn from the Land Bank history and make a source of steady local public funding or, at least, commit 80 percent of Community Preservation Act funds to housing, and 2) the nonprofits, the private sector, and local governments engage together in deep common purpose collaboration - taking risks, daring to trust, enduring criticism, learning from mistakes, and creating successes.
Today is the last day of my 10 years as an Island Affordable Housing Fund board member. I will continue to do what I can to further the cause. It's time to do even more, and to do it even better. There's a Chinese saying: "Man stands for long time with mouth open before roast duck flies in." There's nothing to keep us from preserving our precious community - which is what this is all about - except ourselves. We need to be roasting the duck, as we have for the last decade - a time of great progress.