Op-Ed : Planning the conservation of our human 'infrastructure'
Nothing warms the cockles of a banker's heart more than an increase in the value of his or her collateral. And the strictest of growth controls per se will certainly accomplish that objective, as the usual supply/demand relationship works very well in the real estate world. Restrict the supply of new houses, and the value of the existing housing stock will rise, particularly in a desirable second home Nirvana like Martha's Vineyard. As a banker, that makes me happy.
What will also happen in this scenario is that the wave of teardowns (i.e. buying an older house, tearing it down and building a new one, unfortunately at the cost of the loss of much of our lovely old housing stock), which is just now reaching the Island, will break over the shore, and we bankers will have many opportunities for new lending relationships, as the old owners with no mortgages sell out, and the new owners need to finance their purchases and their new construction. And that scenario is happening more and more each passing month, so the Bankers are happy. Or are they?
The thoughtful Island banker knows that as values increase, the vast infrastructure of people that support our lifestyle - the nurses, the teachers, the store clerks, the carpenters, the policemen and firemen - and, unfortunately, so many of the younger members of our Island's many generations of inhabitants are soon priced out of the market. We have already seen that happen, and it will continue to happen. And once the infrastructure and our Island's families are gutted, a point which is not far away in my judgment, values will drop as the wealthy become dissatisfied with what the Island can't offer any more, and they move on to the next Nirvana, with nothing or no one to replace them. Then the banker becomes really unhappy.
So, my plea as an affordable housing advocate (and also as a banker) is that the critical needs of the Island for affordable housing be taken into account as efforts are made to constrict housing growth. There are many ways to do this. One good example is to increase allowable density, specifically for affordable housing in areas that can environmentally cope with it or are sewered, since low density is the death knell for affordable housing.
Another example is to find a way to construct an area for our summer employees to live, to free up the units now rented for their use for year-round housing at an affordable rate. A third is to utilize the zoning tools allowed under state law, such as 40R zoning, which encourages affordable housing.
Proper planning can take into account both the needs of the Island to conserve its beauty and peace and its agricultural resources, which I enthusiastically support, and the need for conserving our people, which I also enthusiastically support.
The two are not mutually exclusive. To make them happen, we all just need the foresight, the political will, the willingness to compromise, and an equal concern for both the human side and the physical side of our world.
Robert Wheeler is executive vice president of Martha's Vineyard Financial Group and the Martha's Vineyard Savings Bank. Mr. Wheeler, an affordable housing advocate with the Island Housing Trust, prepared these remarks for the Martha's Vineyard Commission's Island Plan Growth and Development Forum, August 27.