Editorial : Will the towns go all in?
The continuing economic struggle on- and off-Island finds businesses, nonprofits, families, taxpayers, and individuals all struggling to make ends meet. These abundantly pessimistic times of scarce money and scarce jobs have also harmed the fortunes of efforts to increase the inadequate stock of Vineyard affordable housing.
Worthy nonprofit organizations who got their fundraising dependent projects under way before the worst of the economic gulf swallowed us find themselves, if not prosperous, at least holding their own. Think Martha's Vineyard Hospital and the Y project.
Taxpayer funded projects - whose dollars come from the pockets of Island property owners or state and federal income taxpayers - include the Tisbury emergency services facility, the West Tisbury town hall reconstruction, the Crooked Bridge (formerly Lagoon Pond Drawbridge, then Temporary Bridge), the Big and Little Bridges, and the Oak Bluffs Steamship Authority terminal reconstruction.
In sum, these projects, funded by generous donors or beleaguered taxpayers, add up to more than $100 million of worthwhile undertakings on-Island, under way, recently completed, or about to begin. It's impressive, but it's old news.
The affordable housing effort depends almost exclusively on private donations and donations from local or other tax revenues. The nonprofits behind these efforts recognize that private fundraising is increasingly difficult and may not get easier for some time. So, despite the pressure on taxpayers, it is understandable that the attention of the earnest affordable housing builders will turn to towns and their reliable ability to extract tax revenues from property owners.
A needed change in the language of conditions governing the possibility of foreclosure proceedings against affordable housing beneficiaries brought this money hunt into practical focus this month. In West Tisbury, which has committed almost $700,000 to the 250 State Road housing project, on the understanding that the houses created will be perpetually affordable, the planning board discovered that creating guaranteed permanently affordable housing, despite the best efforts of banks, nonprofit developers, community leaders, and homeowners, is difficult.
The difficulty may be overcome if West Tisbury, or any other town, were to pledge its taxing authority to backstop any mortgage given by an affordable housing recipient or nonprofit housing developer, should that mortgage go to foreclosure. Such a pledge may be regarded as a perfect hedge against the sale out of foreclosure of an affordable housing unit at market rates. The question is, does the town want to make such a pledge.
But there will be other, similar questions raised by good ideas from the community of supporters who advance the causes of affordable housing and green design and construction. For instance, John Abrams, an accomplished builder of affordable housing that is easy on the environment and on the homeowner's pocketbook - after construction, that is - circulated an idea that would have towns issue bonds to fund the retrofit of older houses, business buildings, and other taxable structures to make them more energy efficient. It's expensive to do, and many homeowners can't afford it. Besides the breakeven point for such expensive changes can be way down the road.
The idea - very clever and very doable - calls for towns to issue bonds, backstopped by their taxing authority, and repaid by amortized, low-cost annual payments added to the taxpayers' property tax bill over the life of the bond issue. Several states have undertaken to allow municipalities to issue such bonds with these payback mechanisms.
It's a clever idea and one that could have an impact on year-round property owners in Island towns. Unlike most tax dollars, these repayments would come only from the property owners that committed to the work, not to the general taxpaying population, many of whom don't live here year-round and have newer houses whose energy bills are small and unlikely to be significantly lowered by spending thousands for retrofitting.
But while the value in permanently affordable housing and in more energy efficient housing is clear, the question comes to the voter: Is this a commitment that an Island town ought to make?