Island Plan forum on housing
Density, money are hurdles
At a recent public forum about housing, convened by the Martha's Vineyard Commission (MVC), moderator Ann Floyd encouraged the audience members to "think outside the box."
On Martha's Vineyard, the median price for a "box," a word also used to describe the kind with four walls in which people live, more than tripled from 1997 to 2006, rising from $205,000 to $695,000. And, in order to buy a house at that price, a family would need an income of $175,000 a year - yet the area median income (AMI) on Martha's Vineyard in 2006 was $68,300.
Statistics such as these provided the backdrop for discussion at the June 27 forum, hosted by the MVC's Island Plan housing work group and moderated by Ms. Floyd, an Island Plan steering committee member and owner/principal broker of Sand Castle Realty. The majority of the 48 people who attended the event were members of housing organizations and town boards.
The widening affordability gap between what houses cost and what families can afford represents one of many challenges the Island Plan's housing work group addressed. Because of skyrocketing property values, over the past 10 months the housing group studied how to increase the number of housing units on the Vineyard that are affordable to year-round residents. The group also explored ways to streamline the planning and management of affordable housing efforts and to increase funding for housing.
The Island Plan is a multi-year effort by the MVC, the regional planning and regulatory agency, to create a blueprint for Island development and change. The housing forum was the first of six Island Plan forums to be held this summer to provide year-round and seasonal residents the opportunity to learn about and participate in the continuing planning work.
MVC executive director Mark London said this week that many of the recommendations made at the forums will affect the commission, and he expects that the MVC will look at implementing some of them soon. "The idea of identifying emerging directions and initiatives is that we don't have to wait to implement them until a formal plan is adopted - these are things that can get going soon," he said.
About 80 people Island-wide signed up specifically for the Island Plan's housing work group, which includes members from many of the Island's 25 housing groups, town housing committees, and town boards. Richard Toole, an Island Plan steering committee member, MVC commissioner, and carpenter/caretaker, chairs the housing group and its six-member core group.
After meeting for 10 months, the housing group put together a preliminary discussion paper identifying key directions for future discussion and promising initiatives that might foster the development of affordable housing.
The housing challenge
In an overview of the Island's housing situation, Christine Flynn, the MVC's economic development and affordable housing planner, said that the problem is not so much a lack of housing but a lack of available housing.
Although Dukes County, which includes the six towns of the Vineyard plus Gosnold, already has more housing stock per capita than any other county in the state, fewer than 46 percent of the homes are occupied year-round. Of the Island's 14,621 housing units, about 8,600 are not occupied on a year-round basis, Ms. Flynn said.
However, while seasonality is a dominating factor that affects housing availability in Aquinnah, Edgartown, and Oak Bluffs, in Tisbury and West Tisbury, year-round occupancy outnumbers seasonal. There are about 75,000 people on the Island during July and August, including 39,000 seasonal residents and vacationers, and 5,000 seasonal workers, Ms. Flynn said.
Philippe Jordi, a housing group member who is the executive director of Island Housing Trust, said the Island's largest need is for housing for families earning 80 percent AMI (about $45,000, depending on family size). However, families of moderate or middle income, up to 140 or 150 percent of AMI, also are unable to achieve home ownership on Martha's Vineyard.
Housing goals, zoning changes
One of the housing group's goals is to increase the number of affordable units to about 650 homes, affordable for families earning 80 percent or less AMI, and another 650 for families earning up to 150 percent AMI. The Dukes County Regional Housing Authority currently has 328 families on the waitlist for affordable housing.
Increasing the number of affordable housing units will require the creation of zoning mechanisms, Mr. Jordi said. One initiative proposed by the housing group would allow all property owners to add an accessory dwelling that could be used for family members or rented at affordable rates to people earning 80 percent or less AMI. Another initiative would create a multi-unit bylaw, which might allow for three or four houses on a three-acre lot, for example. Reusing existing structures also would be encouraged, a sort of "house recycling."
All of these initiatives relate to allowing additional density for affordable housing, which the housing group advocates, in conjunction with open space preservation. However, how this will play in the MVC review process comes into question when looking at some recent projects that seemed to meet these criteria. The Cozy Hearth and Middle Line Road affordable housing projects, for example, ran into heavy opposition and were saddled with many conditions when reviewed by the MVC.
The Cozy Hearth project proposed to subdivide an area zoned for three-acre lots, off Watcha Path Road in Edgartown, into 11 one-acre lots, including provisions for affordability. The development incorporated a cluster plan that preserved 67 percent of the site's open space for habitat protection.
Chilmark's Middle Line Path affordable housing project includes a 9-building, 12-unit affordable housing complex on 21 acres of land. The plan will preserve 60 to 80 percent of the site's open space.
In a follow-up phone conversation this week, Mr. London explained the difference between those projects and the ones the housing group has in mind. Mr. London said the housing group is talking about projects that incorporate a significant amount of open space accessible to and available for use by the public, along with affordable housing.
The housing group's initiatives to streamline the planning and management of similar affordable housing efforts on the Island may provide the litmus test for how future projects will fare under the MVC's review. As housing group member Rob Kendall, owner of Kendall and Kendall Real Estate, described, "The application process for an affordable housing project can be brutal - but going to the Martha's Vineyard Commission is brutal on its own."
Instead, people who have been to the commission before should take affordable housing projects to the MVC, he suggested, because they will know what to expect and how to get through the process more quickly.
special housing needs
Even if the Island is successful in making zoning changes and streamlining planning and management, housing group member Candace daRosa cautioned that there will be a huge gap in funding for affordable housing. Ms. daRosa, a member of the Island Affordable Housing Fund (IAHF), said assessment surveys completed in 2001 and 2005 showed that the IAHF would need an income of about $5 million annually for at least 10 years to create the affordable housing needed, despite the addition of new funds raised by the Community Preservation Act.
Ideas for increasing funding for affordable housing include creating a Martha's Vineyard Housing Bank, financed by a fee on real estate sales, and establishing municipal housing trusts in Island towns to keep properties affordable in perpetuity. The housing group also suggested requiring community members who rent their houses or rooms in their houses seasonally to register and pay a fee to their towns.
When deciding where to build affordable housing, Ms. daRosa said it makes sense to put it where town infrastructure already is in place and creating an Island-wide funding mechanism so that the towns share the costs associated with community housing. "Maybe we need to think about that nasty 'R' word, in terms of regionalizing things like schools, transportation, waste disposal, those kinds of issues," Ms. daRosa said.
Housing group member Christina Brown, an MVC commissioner and member of Edgartown's affordable housing committee and conservation commission, talked about the Island's challenge in housing 5,000 seasonal workers and meeting the housing needs of seniors. Dormitories, boarding houses, and rented rooms in private homes were suggested as possible solutions for seasonal workers. Senior citizens who have bigger houses than they need or who have special needs might be encouraged to build small apartments in their homes that they can rent out, Ms. Brown said.
At the conclusion of the housing group's presentation, Ms. Floyd opened the floor to questions. Most of the comments and differences of opinion across the board concerned allowing increased density. Mr. London also polled the audience about their opinions of the initiatives discussed, using a color-coded rating system. He and Ms. Floyd encouraged everyone to visit the Island Plan's web site, www.islandplan.org, to provide feedback about the forum.
The housing group will focus this summer on the feasibility and possible implementation of its initiatives.