It's jobs, after all
You may be comforted to learn that as troubled as we are about the housing crisis, we are not alone.
"Massachusetts has made modest gains over the last 30 years increasing the rate of home ownership, narrowing a historic gap between our state and the U.S. But Massachusetts still ranks 45th out of 50 states in 2000, with its rate (62 percent), four points below the U.S."
This discouraging news comes from a study called "Home Ownership in Massachusetts: A New Assessment," a joint project of the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth and the Center for Labor Market Studies of Northeastern University, released after the 2000 census.
Actually, there may have been some good news for Vineyarders in the study's tables. It turned out that in Dukes County, which includes the Vineyard and the Elizabeth Islands, home ownership rates were, at 71.3 percent, four points above the national average.
On the other hand, it's not such good news that we should become complacent, because the rate of home ownership in Dukes County had not changed at all in 10 years.
What restrains the rate of growth of home ownership in Massachusetts, and most importantly, on Martha's Vineyard? You don't need a Ph.D. to name the villain. High prices, of course. Massachusetts ranked third in the nation, behind Hawaii and California, in terms of median house value, and Vineyard prices reach higher still, more than $200,000 above the statewide median.
But the authors of this study pointed to another, crucial factor that restrains the growth of home ownership: income.
"One of the best predictors of home ownership status is household income," the study's authors wrote. "In 2000, the median income of Massachusetts households was $49,505, nearly 20 percent above the nation's and ranking seventh highest among the 50 states. Despite this high median income, the real value (in constant 2000 dollars) of the median income of the state households was still two to three percentage points below its 1989 peak, and incomes of state households had become more unequally distributed through the decade, thereby reducing the purchasing power of many households."
In fact, from 1980 to 2000, the price of housing rose so quickly and household earnings rose so much more modestly that houses became more expensive by a factor of two, so that the median price of Massachusetts homes were nearly four times the value of the state's median household income, making the state's housing burden the third highest in the country. And once more, on the Vineyard the picture was bleaker, and bleaker still since 2000.
Ultimately, the researchers come to the only conclusion possible: That an increased supply of mid-range housing, along with good jobs with rising incomes in an economy that is encouraged to prosper, will together do much to ease the housing crunch.
"The home ownership issue," they write, "should be considered within a broader regional economic development strategy."
Here, we concentrate a great deal of earnest planning energy on the shortage of places for people to live. Strategies are varied and inventive on how to solve that problem, while protecting land, water, and air - oh, and steepling real estate values. But as the Island Affordable Housing Fund's Island-wide Housing Needs Assessment pointed out, "the average job on Martha's Vineyard pays only 73 percent of the state average." Given the expense of housing here, whether to rent or to own, the housing solution has as much to do with economic growth on Martha's Vineyard as it does with new rental apartments, new townhouses, new youth lots, and housing subsidies. And economic development is not something we fancy talking about.
"High home prices (85 percent above the statewide median), high rents (at least 30 percent over the statewide median) and low wages (27 percent below the statewide average) describe the Vineyard affordable housing problem," John J. Ryan, author of the IAHF study, wrote.
The understandable focus on providing a variety of housing opportunities for Island families appears likely to yield only limited rewards. Our goal is a diverse and refreshed Island community of committed neighbors. And putting good people who will become good, long-term neighbors into decent housing requires a companion focus on economic expansion - not simply spreading a foundation makeup over the blemishes of economic activity - so that our new neighbors and old friends can make their own way toward independent home ownership and fully vested Vineyard citizenship.