Affordable housing. Not.
For several years now, we have been pleased with ourselves over our apparent determination to defeat the problem of too little affordable housing. Vineyarders have taken comfort from the widespread, demonstrated consensus that here is a corrosive problem that has been generally acknowledged and will require broad political support, not to mention significant public dollars, to address successfully. We have seen the challenge and set out to meet it, sort of.
The efforts to build housing that ordinary Islanders can afford have been Herculean, generous, demanding, and mostly successful. But, they have not yet achieved a scale equal to the size of the growing problem, and it is unlikely that they will. What is more likely is that the Vineyard in years to come will become richer and more exclusive of folks of ordinary means, a kind of gated community, with a narrowly based economy buttressed by high real estate values and protected by a vast, encircling moat, over which ferries bring us everything we need, including the people we need to do for us.
The problem is that to reverse the course we are on requires political decisions that we are unwilling to make: for instance, making rules that encourage the expansion and diversification of the economy; and looking for ways to site and permit subdivisions or housing developments of greater density. The effect of the combination of these two approaches might reasonably be expected to improve the financial circumstances of ordinary Islanders and increase opportunities for folks of modest means to buy or rent good, well-designed, well-built, reasonably priced shelter.
The decision last week by the Edgartown zoning board of appeals that blocks the Cozy Hearth development south of the Edgartown-West Tisbury Road underscores the tacit determination to hold the line against needed growth and change, despite the broadly discussed, community-wide commitment to furnish affordable housing for those who need it. Of course, the Edgartown ZBA only finished the job begun by the Martha's Vineyard Commission, whose favorable decision on the project came with so many conditions as to raise the price tag for the aspiring homeowners in this Chapter 40B affordable housing project to middle class, suburban subdivision levels.
Here was an unusual, imaginative, home-grown concept, in the planning stages for five years by its community of partners, all of them hardworking Vineyarders. Thousands of hard earned dollars have been spent on the planning and permitting effort. They wanted to build 11 houses on 11 acres of vacant land in a flat, three-acre zoned area. And, the answer has been yes, but - until it finally added up to no. And, surprisingly, among the affordable housing advocacy community, whose support for Cozy Hearth has been muted, to the extent that it has been visible at all, there is no outcry, except from the Islanders in need of a reasonably priced place to live.
Last week, Cozy Hearth president Bill Bennett told Times writer Janet Hefler, "I'm disappointed. All these boards will talk about how much we need affordable housing, and when it comes right down to it, they say no. Because they're looking for the perfect place to have it, and there is no perfect place."
Here was a terrific opportunity lost. Or, perhaps not, because the remaining Cozy Hearth partners say they will appeal to the state board created to oversee and overrule, if necessary, the narrow local decisions that defeat affordable housing projects in the name of protecting neighboring property values. We wish the Cozy Hearth partners success in their appeal. But, for Vineyarders who believe that the provision of affordable housing is key to the sustainability of this Island community, the struggle of the Cozy Hearth partners is an alarming signal that our determination to keep things as they are, even though it means squeezing out an entire set of hardworking, modest-income neighbors and friends, appears likely to succeed.