Soundings : Growing pains
With the tenth anniversary of the affordable housing movement this year on Martha's Vineyard, it might be helpful to consider this decade of hard work against the backdrop of other historic efforts here.
The Trustees of Reservations, which now cares for more than 1,500 acres of Island property from Cape Pogue to Menemsha Hills, dates to 1891. The Manuel S. Correllus State Forest, with its 5,100 acres serendipitously protecting the main lens of the Island's groundwater supply, was created in 1908 in a failed effort to save the heath hen. The Nature Conservancy, which has preserved some 1,750 acres of Vineyard land, was incorporated in 1951 but traces its roots back to the Ecological Society of America, born in 1915. Sheriff's Meadow Foundation was established in 1959, the Vineyard Conservation Society in 1965, and the Vineyard Open Land Foundation in 1970. The Martha's Vineyard Commission came along in 1974 and the deus ex machina of Island open space protection, the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank, opened for business in 1986 and has since preserved nearly 3,000 acres for our enjoyment forever.
It's unlikely that for any of these organizations, the first decade was easy. Beginnings are often messy times of growing into a new mission and developing effective strategies to carry it out - a matter of throwing ideas at the wall, or in this case, the landscape, and seeing what sticks.
For the Vineyard affordable housing effort, the first decade has certainly been like that.
The Island's affordable housing movement took form rapidly after a watershed public forum held in May of 2000 at the Grange Hall in West Tisbury. The meeting, which drew such a crowd that people had to be turned away, neatly divides the history of affordable housing on Martha's Vineyard into two periods: before and after.
The Island Affordable Housing Fund received its nonprofit status in July of 2000, just two months after the meeting at the Grange. The Dukes County Regional Housing Authority secured public funding for an executive director in 2001, and launched its Rental Conversion program later that year. Habitat for Humanity of Martha's Vineyard, which had been organized in 1996, built its first Island home in 2002.
Looking back on their first decade, advocates for affordable housing have much to celebrate. At the end of 2009, thanks to projects of the Regional Housing Authority, the Wampanoag Tribal Housing Authority, Island Elderly Housing, Edgartown's Morgan Woods and the new special permit program which allows for accessory apartments in West Tisbury, the Island had amassed an inventory of 350 rental units. Of these, 192 units - nearly 55 percent - are new since the year 2000.
On the home ownership front, progress has been similarly impressive. According to records kept at the RHA, public lotteries for 56 housing opportunities have been held since the summer of 2005.
But amid these successes, there have also been setbacks and hard lessons.
The Housing Ecumenical Action Team, a consortium of church groups formed in the months of excitement after the 2000 housing forum, has failed in its quest to develop the Bridge Housing project in Tisbury. The future of the Bradley Square project in Oak Bluffs, complicated by elements of historic preservation, encumbered by heavy carrying costs and caught up in the difficult moment of a national recession, is not at all clear. Even the Jenney Way project in Edgartown, though in most regards a thumping success, has proven financially problematic because it is saddled (after a court settlement with NIMBY neighbors) with a market-rate home that hasn't sold.
Most serious by far has been the financial implosion last fall of the Island Affordable Housing Fund, which announced in November that it was suddenly unable to make that month's payments to support the Rental Assistance Program. IAHF, remember, is an organization whose sole stated purpose is to raise and distribute funds for affordable housing on Martha's Vineyard.
Leaders of IAHF, in statements since the fund's financial crisis was first revealed, have spoken of a "perfect storm" involving a drop in donations, the national economic downturn and the departure last summer of their former director.
One central element is missing from this meteorological metaphor: the responsibility of board members to mind the money. Before a jetliner hits the ground it must first descend through 20,000 feet, then 10,000, then 5,000. But somehow this board, like the distracted pilots who flew an hour past Minneapolis, never noticed the financial crisis until the moment the housing fund augured in.
The housing fund's recent experience also underscores how essential it is, as affordable housing efforts mature on the Island - and especially as they begin to draw upon public funds - that these organizations raise the bar both in terms of public transparency and in terms of avoiding even the appearance of conflict of interest.
The past two months have shown that while affordable housing may be the closest thing to a sacred cow on the Island's political landscape, that doesn't give an organization permission to follow less than the best practices. Even if you're the Motherhood and Apple Pie Foundation, paying your director commissions from a pot that has public money stirred into it is way out-of-bounds.
Call me insufficiently paranoid, but my inclination, looking at the recent problems of the Island Affordable Housing Fund, is not to attribute to malice what can be explained by ineptitude. Still there's no doubt that the recent financial meltdown at IAHF has had a heavy cost, both in real dollars and in political capital. The sooner we can absorb the lessons of this episode, reassure the public that it won't happen again, and move forward together, the better.u