Affordable housing issues subject of West Tisbury inquiry
Last fall, when the Island's rental assistance program ran out of private funds and the Island towns, including West Tisbury, had to dip into reserves to cover the shortfall, selectman Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter requested that the public and private housing agencies appear before the panel to explain what each agency does and where the town's donated Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds are going.
The selectmen got to ask those questions on March 3, when they quizzed the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority(DCRHA) executive director David Vigneault, the Island Affordable Housing Trust (IHT) director Philippe Jordi, and the Island Affordable Housing Fund (IAHF) executive director Ewell Hopkins.
It was the IAHF, which has in the past provided approximately half of the funds for the rental program, that was unable to meet its funding commitment two days before the November rents were due. The DCRHA, using state and CPA monies also provides half of the rent subsidy funding.
Speaking first, Mr. Vigneault said that the DCRHA "works for the towns and works with the trust."
Selectman Richard Knabel acknowledged that the "rental assistance program is one of the most cost efficient of the programs on the Island." But, he asked Mr. Vigneault, "If the towns are going to fund the rental assistance program totally, what controls will there be? How will people qualify? Could the town put a cap on the spending?"
Mr. Vigneault reported that the level of CPA funding from the six towns has grown from $245,000 to the $564,000 requested for the fiscal 2011 budget year. "We have to do a better job of explaining how the people are picked," he said.
Mr. Vigneault also told the selectmen that by July 1, the DCRHA expects to have formed an ad hoc rental assistance advisory committee with members nominated from the towns. "This is big money and these are fair questions to be asked," he said.
Mr. Knabel said that $104,000 of CPA funds are on the warrant for the annual Town Meeting in April, compared to $66,000 last year. "If the town is going to make a commitment to affordable housing, that should be in the town budget, not depending on CPA funds," he said.
Mr. Vigneault said that West Tisbury is one of 123 communities in Massachusetts that use CPA funds for rental assistance programs. "It is a pretty good bang for the buck," he said, adding that the DCRHA will "do a better job of talking to landlords and tenants so that they understand that the funding is coming from CPA money."
Mr. Manter asked how long a rental assistance recipient could qualify for assistance. Mr. Vigneault explained that currently it is a little more than three years.
Mr. Jordi explained to the selectmen that since the IHT was formed, its role has expanded to include both the development of affordable housing and overseeing the land's use. Affordable homes now bought through the IHT include a $600 annual ground lease fee to fund the IHT "land stewardship" function.
According to Mr. Jordi, the "land stewardship" role includes helping homeowners deal with issues including mortgage arrearage, reselling, and upgrading of the homes. Mentioning a recent lengthy legal battle involving a foreclosed West Tisbury affordable property, Mr. Jordi said, "Over-leveraging of that property would not have happened if there had been stewardship. This program is an enormous investment as a town, and to not monitor it is a big mistake."
Mr. Manter asked how the IHT was spending the town's CPA funds and was told that the IHT annual audit information is available on the IHT website. Mr. Manter also asked who worked for the IHT and what they are paid.
Mr. Jordi said he is the only employee and annually the IHT administrative budget is $140,000. "The IHT focus is on implementation, not fundraising," he said.
Mr. Knabel explained that the IHT annual budget relies on $10,000 a month contributed by the IAHF, plus a small amount of money from development and the ground lease fees. "If there were no development fees and there was no money from the IAHF, the only money would be from the ground lease fees," he said. "Is there enough money to maintain stewardship as the amount of affordable housing property increases?"
Mr. Jordi said the IHT "has not asked ourselves how they are going to be monitored."
Mr. Hopkins explained that the role of the IAHF was to "advocate for the housing needs on the Island and raise money." State and federal lobbying, private fundraising, working with developers on and off the Island, as well as the funding of demographic studies of the housing needs on Island are components of the IAHF role, he said.
"The IAHF fund looks at what the needs are on the Island and looks to the private sector for the money to make that happen," Mr. Hopkins said. "As we move forward, the IAHF should play a lesser role in the public funding arena. The CPA funds should go directly to the organizations that are executing projects."
Mr. Knabel asked Mr. Hopkins if the IAHF is, therefore, going to stop its involvement in the rental assistance program.
Mr. Hopkins said that the IAHF board "would like to expand the rental assistance program if we can raise the money" but that the IAHF "is not prepared to make a monetary commitment for funds we do not have."
Mr. Manter repeated that the "money should be in the bank."
Mr. Hopkins said, "absolutely."
Mr. Manter described the recent funding shortfall by the IAHF as very embarrassing. He said it caught the town, renters, and landlords off guard. "If we tell people that they have rental assistance for a year, we have to know that there is the money," he said.
"You have my assurance that if the IAHF makes a commitment to fund the rental assistance program, the funds will be in the bank," Mr. Hopkins said.
Mr. Manter asked Mr. Jordi about the ability of homeowners to pass the affordable property on to their heirs regardless of the heirs' income. Mr. Jordi confirmed that the property can be passed along to an heir without an income qualification, but he added that other qualifications applied.
Mr. Manter said, "Then that unit is no longer housing an affordable income person."
Mr. Jordi said that state rules require that an heir must qualify on the basis of income to take possession of an under-market affordable housing unit. In making the rules for housing it oversees, a town may vary the rules for heritability, as long as the state requirements were not attached earlier when the housing unit was created and sold to a housing recipient.
Mr. Manter asked, "At what point should they be paying more or a fairer share of the tax burden on the house?"
Mr. Jordi said that the value of the affordable housing property is lower initially and there is a four percent per year cap on increasing the value of the property. Selectman Diane Powers called the affordability measure "a snapshot in time" and said that an affordable housing unit will not appreciate as rapidly as a home right next door but not in the program.
Robert Potts of West Tisbury asked Mr. Hopkins "how close are we to satisfying the demand for affordable housing?"
"We are doing a poor job," Mr. Hopkins said, "the need is extreme and the difference of opinion on how to do it is also extreme."
"We have come a long way," Mr. Vigneault said. "There have been significant gains made against a problem."
West Tisbury building inspector Ernie Mendenhall, a member of the DCRHA board, told the selectmen that the rental assistance program still "has not bridged the gap to the end of the fiscal year."
Mr. Vigneault said the money is there through March and that no landlords have dropped the program.
Mr. Hopkins said, "I am working on it on a daily basis. We are going to bridge the gap from charitable contributions, and the community is stepping up."
In other business, the selectmen agreed to begin a rotating art display program in town hall. There was discussion as to whether an art curating committee was needed. Mr. Knabel favored such a committee. Executive secretary Jennifer Rand asked to get the effort going and then address the need for a committee.
Mr. Knabel asked Mr. Manter (also a West Tisbury police sergeant) to ask the state Ethics Commission for regarding his involvement in the planning for a new town police station.
"I have read the rule," Mr. Manter said, "and I don't think there is any need to ask the Ethics Commission for a ruling."