The complications nagging Chilmark's good-hearted effort to build 12 affordable housing units on 21 acres between North and Middle roads illustrate several defects in the current array of initiatives intended to defeat the problem of insufficient and overpriced Island housing. Certainly, each and every effort like Chilmark's will achieve something important, adding to the affordable housing stock. But, as far behind as the Vineyard is in allowing the creation of badly needed, moderately priced housing, even the astonishing willingness of taxpayers and private donors to contribute cash and land to the cause will not overcome the deficit nor meet the continuing and growing demand.
The key issues that present themselves as barriers to Vineyard success in addressing the need for affordable housing are:
First, zoning and development regulations, which prevent the development of small, buildable lots or moderately sized rental housing complexes. These metastasizing rules support overpriced real estate and stiff-arm moderate income families by strangling housing supply. That is the heart and soul of the Vineyard's affordable housing problem.
In a New York Times Magazine article, entitled Home Economics, published March 5, Jon Gertner describes the thinking of Edward L. Glaeser, a Harvard economist, on the question of housing and how to make more of it available to folks who need it but may not be able to afford it.
"So, after sorting through a mountain of data," Mr. Gertner writes, "Glaeser decided that the housing crisis was man-made. The region's zoning regulations - which were enacted by locales in the first half of the 20th century to separate residential land from commercial and industrial land and which generally promoted the orderly growth of suburbs - had become so various and complex in the second half of the 20th century that they were limiting growth. Land-use rules of the 1920's were meant to assure homeowners that their neighbors wouldn't raise hogs in their backyards, throw up a shack on a sliver of land nearby or build a factory next door, but the zoning rules of the 1970's and 1980's were different in nature and effect. Regulations in Glaeser's new hometown of Weston, for instance, made extremely large lot sizes mandatory in some neighborhoods and placed high environmental hurdles (some reasonable, others not, in Glaeser's view) in front of developers. Other towns passed ordinances governing sidewalks, street widths, the shape of lots, septic lines and so on - all with the result, in Glaeser's analysis, of curtailing the supply of housing."
And, "...Glaeser speculates that there may be a viral phenomenon whereby once housing prices reach a certain level, residents become aware of high home values and agitate for restrictions; another possibility is that judges have become much more sympathetic to blocking development for environmental reasons. Still another thought: that homeowners, utilizing skills learned during the civil rights movement and political protests of the 1960's and 1970's, became much more adept at organizing against developers. (There appears to be a reasonable correlation between liberal enclaves, zoning regulations and high housing prices.)"
Second, and unfortunately, many of the efforts we are making, particularly those that offer a variety of subsidies for the purchase of housing, act as supports for the current high property values that so many of us, who bought years ago, enjoy.
Third, and making matters worse, the beneficiaries of these subsidies must make concessions to acquire the housing they need, crippling concessions which restrict them from the future enjoyment and benefit of the appreciating value of the house they own, a benefit so many of us have used to add a room, start a business, or put a child through college. That is, to a large degree, off the table for the recipients of this community's largess.
And finally, if one compares the qualifying incomes (up to 125 percent of area median income, approaching $100,000) and proposed rents for such affordable housing enterprises as the one contemplated in Chilmark, one of the state's richest towns in terms of real estate, with the formula for participation in, say, the Habitat for Humanity program (30 to 80 percent of AMI, or about $60,000 to $70,000), it's clear that expensive, limited efforts like Chilmark's fail to meet the needs of those with the most modest incomes. Edgartown's Pennywise Path rental housing development is a more promising model.
If the answers to several questions raised in connection with the development proposal for the Middle Line Road project are discouraging, it may be that Chilmark will need to rethink its affordable housing plan. Some rethinking of the Island-wide plan is in order as well.