Pennywise Path is big leap for affordable housing
The Community Builders Inc. is placing modular homes on foundations almost daily at Pennywise Path, the new affordable rental subdivision off North 12th Street in Edgartown. Now that the project is actually underway, it's advancing with a speed that belies the arduous eight-year process behind it.
For Fred B. "Ted" Morgan Jr., 85, of Edgartown, it's a deeply satisfying moment.
Looking back across his career of more than three decades in public service, including nearly 10 full terms as an Edgartown selectman, Mr. Morgan has much to be proud of: the downtown beautification project, the preservation of Katama Airpark and the Waller Farm, the town's acquisition of the Edgartown Marine dock, the construction of the new Edgartown School.
Alan Gowell, affordable housing committee chariman, and past chairman Ted Morgan Jr. look over the project. Photo by Ben Scott
Then there's his recent work as chairman of the Edgartown affordable housing committee on behalf of the Pennywise Path project, 60 units of mixed-income rental housing now being built on 12 acres of town land off the Vineyard Haven Road. In an interview this week, Mr. Morgan said that when he weighs this accomplishment against all the others, "It's pretty much at the top of the list for me."
Mr. Morgan was involved with Pennywise Path from the very genesis, before voters agreed in 1998 to purchase a tract of 177 acres on the outskirts of Edgartown.
Mr. Morgan recalled walking into the planning board office one morning in 1997 to speak with Christina Brown, and seeing a plot plan pinned on the wall. "I looked at it, and it was this particular area. I said, you know, it would be a shame to see that whole 180 acres developed. You had Country Acres and Shurtleff Woods on one side, Dodgers Hole, and the Ocean Heights and Arbutus Park area. Knowing full well that the town wasn't in a position to buy the property, we got together with the selectmen and decided we'd talk to the Land Bank. That's how it all came about."
The Land Bank ended up with the 118 acres of Pennywise Path Preserve. Edgartown held two parcels of about 30 acres each, one in the north and one in the south, and in 2001, voters at town meeting designated 12 acres of the southern parcel for affordable housing.
Edgartown formed an affordable housing committee, and Mr. Morgan was its chairman until a month ago, when Alan Gowell succeeded him. "Everyone on this committee has worked hard," he said, "but Alan has devoted so much time - he's so enthusiastic and conscientious - that he deserves an awful lot of credit for what is taking place out there."
Fred B. "Ted" Morgan Jr.
Focusing on rentals
The new committee decided early on that it would concentrate on rental housing at Pennywise Path. "Almost everyone in the business at that time was working on the side of home ownership," Mr. Morgan said. "We felt there was a need for rentals. We were looking at a mixed-income project, and we knew that some of the people wouldn't be making too much money. We were thinking of teachers who would be coming to the Island, knowing that our teachers are going to be retiring in the near future. We thought about seniors who could no longer afford to keep their houses. And we felt that with this project, we would concentrate on rentals."
The committee issued a request for proposals, and ended up hiring The Community Builders, the largest nonprofit urban housing developer in the nation. As they worked with the developers to find the best design for the 12 acres, the committee soon found itself planning the largest municipal housing project in Island history.
Mr. Morgan insists it wasn't a difficult decision to work at this ambitious scale: "We felt that with the zoning bylaws for this type of housing, we could do it in a 12-acre parcel and still make it accommodating and attractive. We told The Community Builders that we wanted attractive buildings; we didn't want them all to look alike, and they kept working on plans until our committee approved them. Now each building accommodates four apartments: one three-bedroom, two two-bedrooms and one one-bedroom.
"We wanted this to look like a community that people were interested in, with attractive shrubbery and the roads laid out nicely. We didn't want it to look like a regular housing development. We're very pleased with it."
Ordeals of review
The subdivision at Pennywise Path was proposed under Chapter 40B, the state law that exempts affordable housing projects from local zoning. Still the town had to run a regulatory gauntlet, taking the plan before the Edgartown zoning board of appeals and the Martha's Vineyard Commission (MVC).
Mr. Morgan came away from this experience convinced that the Island's regional land use agency is still part of the problem, not the solution, where affordable housing is concerned:
"Going through the Martha's Vineyard Commission is such a frustrating experience, because the people on that commission just do not have the common sense to realize what the situation is, to see the big picture.
"I think that they're not helping affordable housing advance on this Island. They make it so difficult. They're being too demanding on different aspects of these projects, and not recognizing the desperate need for affordable housing. And I think that's wrong. When you look at what's going on on this Island, when you look at what's being built on a 10,000-square-foot lot here in downtown Edgartown - every square inch utilized - it's all right for the wealthy to do what they want to do, but then when you reverse the situation and you want to provide affordable housing, they make it so difficult that sometimes you feel like throwing your hands in the air and saying the hell with it. It's so frustrating."
In the end, the commissioners unanimously approved the Pennywise Path plan in July 2004. Conditions were imposed on everything from lighting to the use of bug zappers, but the scale of the subdivision was left unchanged.
The NIMBY effect
One thing that has been notably missing from the story of Pennywise Path is the delay caused by lawsuits from abutters. Across the Island, from Chappaquiddick to Tisbury, affordable housing plans that have been approved by every regulatory agency are being held up as neighbors hire attorneys and try to stop them.
Mr. Morgan thinks that's a shame, and he is glad it hasn't happened at Pennywise Path. He recalled testifying on behalf of the Jenney Lane project, a downtown Edgartown project currently being blocked in the courts, and confronting some of the opponents outside the courtroom. "I said to them, 'You know something? This is amazing: You're seasonal, and you're objecting to some poor guy who needs a house. You have a house here; you have a house elsewhere; you may have three houses. And these people can't afford to buy one house.'"
Mr. Morgan said he isn't sure why Pennywise Path avoided the clash in the courts that seems to be a regular part of the affordable housing business lately. He said his committee tried hard to be transparent, and held plenty of public hearings. But in the end, he said, it may simply be that the working-class residents of the neighborhood didn't have the deep pockets for protracted lawsuits.
"In the neighborhood, I know there were complaints and objections," Mr. Morgan said. "But the thing is, I don't think they could get enough people together to fund a lawyer who would take this to the courts. I think it's the difference of those who can afford it, and those who can't."
In their testimony before the MVC, several residents of the neighborhood admitted as much. David Montambault, a resident of 14th Street, told the commission: "The residents of Arbutus Park don't have a real estate lawyer on retainer or a trained public relations department. We don't have working relationships with environmental scientists, traffic or groundwater experts."
Steve Ewing of Ocean Heights sounded the same note in a letter to the MVC, pleading: "Don't put it in a place that destroys an established neighborhood and pits the same working families you're trying to assist against each other."
A native of Edgartown, at 19 years of age Mr. Morgan entered the Army during World War II and took part in the Normandy invasion as a member of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division. Mr. Morgan has heard the objection that Pennywise Path is somehow "out of character" for the Island, and he has little patience for it. To people who say this new subdivision doesn't look like the traditional Vineyard, he has a ready retort: "Neither do all the multi-million-dollar homes that are being built here."
He responds just as quickly to the suggestion that perhaps affordable housing is a job better left to the open market than to government.
"This is our business," he said emphatically. "As town leaders, we need to move on providing affordable housing for people who live here.
"In plain, ordinary terms, the Island is becoming a rich man's playground. The poor people are being left behind, and it's becoming more and more difficult for even a working class person to make it here. It's a total change from what it was when I came back here from the military, when you could buy a home for a reasonable price."
He concluded, "I'm not ready to give up. I think that young people growing up here who want to stay here have a right to live here. Somehow we have to provide a situation whereby they can."