The Martha's Vineyard Commission members who approved the Cozy Hearth Corporation's development plan have staked out some important territory in the struggle to enlarge the stock of affordable housing on the Vineyard. They have signaled that they understand from their constituents that the plight of Vineyard neighbors, whose bank accounts do not indemnify them from inflated housing costs, is a civic agenda item that merits both concern and action, just as conservation and preservation issues, growth management, and historic preservation do.
The Cozy Hearth project, a Chapter 40B undertaking conceived and developed by a group of like-minded Islanders who figured that if they joined forces they might find a way to put roofs over their heads, was imaginative, unusual as 40B plans go, tailored to well-understood needs, and profoundly Vineyard in character. It is a model of one sort of affordable housing development that bears replication. Of course, it's only one of several approaches to the problem, and no one approach - resident home sites, Habitat for Humanity, rental subsidies, municipal housing ventures, and so on - will, by itself, meet the housing need. The need, if it can be met at all in this age of wildly expensive, sharply limited Island property, much of it the focus of insatiable demand from well-to-do buyers, must be addressed in a variety of ways, and the Cozy Hearth group has shown us a new one.
Of course, density is the rock bottom issue that drove the months of hearings and debate over the Cozy Hearth plan. Indeed, a survey of most of the significant affordable housing efforts undertaken since 2000 on the Vineyard reveals that increasing density was, in almost every case, the key to each effort's success. Too much of Martha's Vineyard is now zoned for very large lots, as the Cozy Hearth property was. Low-density rules are a significant impediment to the creation of affordable housing. Allowing higher density in some carefully selected areas that are now large-lot zoned ought to be a focus of town planners and the Martha's Vineyard Commission. If it were, voters would get to choose where affordable housing will be sited. Voter resistance to such re-zoning efforts makes Chapter 40B, the state's anti-snob (read large-lot) zoning law, a useful mechanism for developing needed new housing opportunities. That's what's happened with the Cozy Hearth group.
But it would be a mistake to imagine that the notion of affordability, as applied to the Cozy Hearth project, as finally approved by the Martha's Vineyard Commission, means low cost. The land cost for Cozy Hearth's 11 acres was high. The developers' carrying costs through the attenuated commission approval process, and the expensive conditions attached to the commission's favorable decision mean that pulling up a chair before the Cozy Hearth won't be a bargain, and it certainly would not be affordable to many Islanders who need reasonably priced shelter, whether to rent or to own.
Still, the Martha's Vineyard Commission can be proud of its decision, and Islanders ought to be pleased. It's a step toward re-balancing the planning imperatives, which have been out of whack for a long time and have contributed to the unreasonably high cost of living here, a painful experience common across the income spectrum.