Blinker light flashing
If you were the Island master planner in charge, and your job was to help make the Vineyard a better and better place to live, how would you arrange the hierarchy of important priorities?
While you are thinking, here are suggestions that make sense to this page.
First, economic development. Expanding economic opportunities for Island businesses and for business minded developers who would start or expand businesses is at the top of the list. Businesses furnish needed goods and services, pay and provide benefits for employees, and when they are successful, they expand, pay better, and add employees.
Second, bring down the cost of living. Middle income Islanders endure high costs of living on the Vineyard, and not only skyrocketing real estate prices, but inflated prices for groceries, fuel, clothing, building materials, and everything else. Even wealthier Islanders recognize, and mostly accept though with increased grumbling, that they must pay a high price for their Vineyard lives. But the most harmful effects plague ordinary folk, the ones who teach our children, nurse us to health, police our neighborhoods, and do all the other tasks that make communities livable, desirable, variable, and neighborly.
Third, affordable housing. Despite a broad political consensus forged from an understanding of the threat to the Vineyard community posed by inadequate supplies of affordable housing, and despite vigorous efforts to combat that threat, the need continues to outstrip the supply, and the outlook, instead of brightening, appears gloomier.
An examination of the need for affordable housing, the successes to date, and the influences working against future success appears in Doing Business, a supplement published with this morning's Times.
The warning light flashes today, because the priorities suggested above face growing obstacles, and approaches to addressing these issues suffer from inattention or downright wrongheadedness. Indeed, the actual Island planners give every evidence of planning for a very different Island indeed, one lush and desirable in some geographic respects, but ugly, cramped, and cruel in human terms.
For instance, the effort to supply increased quantities of affordable housing is for the most part subsidy-based, and as such may be self-defeating in the long run. The advantage is that tight controls may be exercised by the community over the supply, by funding only small-scale projects or lot-by-lot efforts, and shielding areas where significant acreage may be available for small lot development, which is not allowed by current zoning rules. All of these subsidized efforts become subject to intense, discouraging, and downright debilitating public review. Witness the gauntlet through which the Cozy Hearth developers must run in pursuit of approval for their tiny 40B plan, and theirs is a privately funded effort, albeit with the de facto subsidy of 40B development rules. Despite the Island's apparent commitment to affordable housing, the true goal pursued by community regulators and even some affordable housing promoters works out to be preservation of large lot zoning and protection of high real estate values. What is lost to most of the beneficiaries of these public and private projects is the chance to benefit from the appreciation of real estate value over time, a benefit enjoyed by most current Island property owners who bought when small lots created by private developers were within reach of modest income earners. The new beneficiaries of subsidized affordable housing will be a distinct class of Islanders, cut off from the valuable opportunity for wealth creation generally offered by home ownership.
Plus, the expense of public subsidies for affordable housing promises to rise. With interest rates rising, the cost to taxpayers, whether through broad-based real estate tax levies or narrowly targeted fees on buyers or sellers of real estate, will rise too, and taxpayers will be called on to pay more to subsidize the growth of affordable housing, or do less.
In addition, as was evident recently in West Tisbury, there is competition for tax dollars, which subsidized housing advocates have counted on to fund future projects. West Tisbury needs to do something about its wonderful, historic, beautiful, but worn town hall. Tisbury needs to find millions to buy a new public safety building, the shrine to its new, million dollar fire truck. Oak Bluffs needs to expand and improve its brand new wastewater treatment system. Chilmark may buy a restaurant for nearly $4 million, because it can afford it, and figure out what to do with the land, if anything, by and by.
Of course, most town tax dollars come from seasonal property owners who don't vote, and that has for years inspired cheerful enthusiasm among town voters for spending, which might otherwise be restrained by struggling year-round wage-earning property owners and voters. But increased real estate values and increasing town spending, along with consequent increases in tax rates, hurt modest income year-rounders the most, as do the rising cost of living apart from housing and the historic hostility to business growth.
If the master plan is to make it harder for ordinary folk to succeed, the outlook today suggests that the plan is working.