They are just houses
Bill Bennett's Cozy Hearth affordable housing plan will soon endure a fifth evening of scrutiny by the Martha's Vineyard Commission. This is a plan to provide one-acre lots on vacant Edgartown land for employees and friends of Mr. Bennett. The MVC began reviewing the Cozy Hearth project in May.
The MVC had more questions last week concerning such things as wastewater disposal, road and traffic issues, and income eligibility, many of them issues that have been probed before. They sent Mr. Bennett off to answer a series of written questions posed by the commission members. The sixth installment of the Cozy Hearth hearing is imminent.
"I'm not a developer," Mr. Bennett told Times writer Janet Hefler this week. "If this works out for Cozy Hearth, then I think the system works, because a regular guy with regular people from the Vineyard can get together and bumble their way through the regulatory process and get a house. I'll believe the boards are working, because they've made it so it's navigable for the average Joe. If this doesn't work, then this says a regular guy can't go through the regulatory process unless he's a developer."
Or, he might have added, a nonprofit organization developing subsidized housing.
Mr. Bennett's Cozy Hearth group includes seven families. They formed a nonprofit organization and bought 11 acres on Watcha Path Road, in an area zoned for three-acre lots. They plan to subdivide the property into 11 one-acre lots under the terms of the state's Chapter 40B law, aimed to get around large-lot zoning restrictions that mostly make affordable housing impossible.
Cozy Hearth has changed its plans pursuant to recommendations of the MVC commissioners, including setting aside 67 percent of the open space as a moth habitat under the terms of a state conservation and management permit. In August, Mr. Bennett supplied written answers to questions from the commission members and staff. Now there are more questions—not necessarily different ones, though.
Mr. Bennett's observation, repeated earlier, is right on the money. If this Island community works at all, if the Martha's Vineyard Commission works, it must be the case that ordinary folks can find a way to get permission to build modest houses that they can afford on vacant land. And it cannot be the case that all modestly priced housing must be subsidized by taxpayers.
Density and opposition from neighbors are the chief issues, apart from cost. Neighborhood resistance to change is understandable and not to be taken lightly, but we should not genuflect to it either, not without serious consideration.
It's a mystery why Paul Strauss of Oak Bluffs, a Dukes County commissioner-appointed MVC member, told Mr. Bennett last week, "We feel affordable housing projects should be relatively small and scattered through neighborhoods. I have the feeling that this is an almost pristine, large lot area, and not suitable for this type of project. I'm not convinced it's the right project in the right place." Mr. Strauss may indeed "feel" this way, but "we" may have a different view.
Some neighborhoods, one imagines, may be happy to be targeted just the way Mr. Strauss suggests in his presumptuous way. They may welcome "scattered" affordable housing units distributed among their neighborhoods. But, the guess here is that settled neighborhoods, whether densely configured or with large lot standards in place, will generally object to what Mr. Strauss calls "housing projects." All neighborhoods do. Still, some of the new housing this Island community needs so badly must be built in neighborhoods zoned for three acres, that is, in "pristine, large-lot areas." Not all the new housing we need can be infiltrated into already dense areas.
After all, affordable housing is not "housing projects." It's nothing more than housing. It's where everyday folks, like most of us, live. The MVC and the Martha's Vineyard community have no right to abuse and manhandle folks who need to build places to live, just because they can't pay what the bubblicious real estate market demands nowadays. And our neighbors who need a place to live don't all need public subsidies either. They don't need to be treated as supplicants in need of a community favor, and they certainly don't need to be pestered by regulators until the moment of opportunity for their plan has passed. The MVC's role in the Cozy Hearth process ought to be to find a way to make a good thing happen for our neighbors, and quickly. If they do, then the system will have worked, as Mr. Bennett said. If not, then we will have endangered our sense of community.