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affordable housing

The panel discussion focused on the need for new tactics and Island-wide cooperation.

Morgan Woods in Edgartown is an example of large scale rental development on Island. – File photo by Ralph Stewart

Although the first blush of spring beckoned outside, a standing-room crowd still filled the Tisbury Senior Center on Saturday morning to listen to experts and to exchange ideas about creating more affordable housing for year-round Martha’s Vineyard residents.

The need for Island-wide cooperation, larger-scale development, zoning changes, and innovative funding were repeated themes during the event, organized by the Island Housing Trust (IHT).

Builder John Abrams, president of South Mountain Co., and advisory member of the IHT, moderated the morning’s discussion. “We have made incredible progress, far more progress than many communities that I know about with the same issues, but only a drip, drip, drip, of small solutions,” he said. “We’ve never been able to turn the faucet to get a steady flow of true solutions to solve the crisis that we have.”

Island unity crucial

Susan Connelly, director of community housing initiatives for the Massachusetts housing partnership, said that the Island stands a better chance of funding if the towns work together. “We need you guys to work together so we know the public money is going as far as it can,” she said. Ms. Connelly said that financial disparities between the six towns needn’t be a roadblock to inter-Island cooperation: “It’s not just about money. It’s also about political will, showing cooperation, and putting aside individual agendas.”

Philippe Jordi, executive director of IHT, said that in the past year, IHT had created more affordable housing than in any previous year, and pointed to the six recently renovated Village Court apartments in Vineyard Haven, renovated under the guidance of The Resource Inc. (TRI), as an example of Island-wide cooperation. Mr. Jordi said a crucial funding element of the Village Court apartments was Community Preservation Act (CPA) funding from four different towns — Chilmark, Tisbury, West Tisbury, and Edgartown.

Mr. Abrams said the recent creation of the all-Island planning board, spearheaded by IHT treasurer Dan Seidman, Tisbury planning board co-chairman, was another positive step in inter-town cooperation.

Zoning changes needed

Mr. Jordi said zoning changes enacted by the town of West Tisbury were key to creating the cottage apartments at Sepiessa Point, which added three additional units last year.

Squash Meadow Construction president Bill Potter said he was hamstrung by current zoning bylaws when he attempted to create affordable housing for his own employees in Oak Bluffs. “Last year my company looked into commercial land for employee housing,” he said. Multi-unit housing is restricted to commercially zoned land in all six towns. “I have employees paying $1,200 month for a garage apartment. That converts to a $240,000 mortgage for condos we could build. The problem was finding a piece of land.”

Ms. Connelly said other rural communities in the state face with the same paradox that exists on the Vineyard — although smaller-scale development may appeal, aesthetically and financially, when the state or federal government looks to evaluate affordable projects for stable, long-term funding, they look at the economy of scale. “They want to have the greatest impact for the greatest number of people, and that goal is often in conflict with how housing can be developed in rural areas,” she said. “The biggest source of public financing that creates a more stable subsidized housing is low-income housing tax credits. You have to do 30 to 40 units to make that project work financially.”

Ms. Connelly cited Province Landing in Provincetown, 50 mixed-income units on 2.5 acres, as a successful example. Province Landing was developed by The Community Builders, Inc. (TCB), the same company that developed Edgartown’s Morgan Woods, the largest mixed-income rental housing development on the Island.
“Morgan Woods is our biggest success,” Edgartown planning board and Martha’s Vineyard Commission member Christina Brown said. “It was audacious and a lot naive, but it worked. The town filed the application to increase it from eight to 60 units, purchased the land in cooperation with the Land Bank, then leased land to Community Builders,” Ms. Brown said. “It’s been open eight years, and it’s working. It houses people age 6 months to 75 years old. Ninety percent are employed with Island jobs — plumbers, bus drivers, CPAs, bank employees, chefs, hotel housekeepers, Steamship employees, and EMTs. The bad news is there are over 200 screened, eligible Islanders on the waiting list.”

Ms. Brown also expressed concern about available land for future development. “We’re not getting as many buildable lots as we used to,” she said. “We need more land. The town should go out and get land now and assign it to affordable housing right away.”

Tapping the private sector

Julie Anne McNary, executive director of the Permanent Endowment Fund for Martha’s Vineyard and a recent transplant from the Boston area, said social impact bonds are a way of tapping into the prodigious wealth that has a vested interest in the Island. Ms. McNary in said her tenure with Laurene Jobs, Steve Jobs’ widow, she gained a lot of experience interacting with millionaires and billionaires. She said that in addition to appealing to donors on an emotional level, a businesslike approach is also key.

“With the amount of wealth that’s here, there’s extraordinary potential,” she said. “I know hedge fund people, they want to see a demonstrative impact. They want to feel good, and get also that feeling when they do a good deal.”

Ms. McNary said social impact bonds and impact investment bonds, a socially conscious real estate investment trust (REIT), provide potential investors with that opportunity. “You say, ‘Give us $25 million collectively, we follow your benchmarks, you set the bars. When we get there, the proceeds aren’t taken back, they’re reinvested.’”

Ms. Connelly endorsed the social impact bonds. “I think it could work,” she said. “It reminds me of the community investment tax credit.”

Ms. McNary also said the town-centric tradition of the Island is a challenge to raising philanthropic capital. “Normally, social impact bonds bear down on one community,” she said. “The six-town thing can be confusing.”

Christine Flynn from the Martha’s Vineyard Commission said that wastewater needed to be factored into the funding equation. “Water quality here is the holy grail,” she said. “We have to look at infrastructure costs. Cape Cod is looking at at half a billion dollars to address their wastewater issue. We’ve done a much better job, but towns are looking at hundreds of millions in costs.”

Ms. McNary suggested that with the right approach, the wastewater cost needn’t be prohibitive for investors if they’re provided with proper analysis and data. “There’s a lot of reasons rich people get rich,” she said. “Some of them are incredibly smart investors. If you analyze wastewater costs, bundle it into the deal, it can get done.”

Rick Presbury, director of housing assistance in Hyannis and veteran of the affordable housing war on the Cape and Islands, said that solving this Island problem also requires Islanders getting off the Island. “People in this room have to go up to Boston, and tell them this is what is happening, and this is what we want to do about it,” he said.

Mr. Abrams added Islanders also have to get off the couch. “It’s up to Islanders to put pressure on government at the local level,” he said. “You have to participate if you want your voices to be heard.”


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The first test many newly hired Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School teachers face is finding a place to live that they can afford.

High school Principal Gil Traverso, shown on an early visit to the school, said he struggled to find housing.— File photo by Janet Hefler

A newly hired teacher faces many challenges when he or she moves to Martha’s Vineyard. One of the biggest challenges before the new school year even begins is the search for a place to live. The high cost of housing, school administrators said, is a factor in hiring, and is a problem they are struggling to solve.

Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School history teacher Andrew Vandall is originally from Pittsburgh, Pa. He arrived on the Island in 2012 to take a job at the high school. While trying to acclimate to the unique Island school and community, Mr. Vandall juggled housing.

The term of his first full-year contract was from August 28 to June 20. Most winter rentals end in May.

“Where are teachers supposed to live, shower, do their lesson plans, when they don’t have housing?” Mr. Vandall said in an emailed response to a question about his housing struggle.

For the first six months, he lived in a 100-square-foot shed with a microwave, toaster, and outdoor shower. “It wasn’t easy,” he said. “And I was lucky; at least I had a shed.”

Mr. Vandall signed a winter rental contract for $3,600. It was all of the money in his bank account at the time.

“Teachers are great renters, because we have a guaranteed winter employment, as opposed to laborers,” he said.

Mr. Vandall is not alone. Special education teacher Ryan Kent moved to the Vineyard two years ago. Mr. Kent is now living in his fourth location.

“I think that the district could do more to help incoming and moving teachers find housing,” he said.

Elaine Hays, a writing-lab teacher, began teaching at the beginning of this school year. “The school administration sent me a lot of ads for rentals, but they were all very expensive,” she said. “If the school system offered housing at a reasonable price, it would make a big difference.”

Housing costs also affect those further up the salary ladder.

In July 2014, Gilbert Traverso, principal of the Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy in Springfield, accepted the principal’s job at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, at a salary of $140,000. He began his new job on August 1.

Unable to find housing in the summer, he ended up in a rental in New Bedford and commuted every day for the first month of school.

“Looking back on the experience, if I knew I was going to have to commute six hours every day, I would not have taken the job as principal for the high school,” he told The Times.

Mr. Traverso is not alone in reaching that conclusion, although in his case it was after the fact. “I know of people that were very qualified for jobs here at the high school, however, who chose not to come here, because of the high housing costs,” Mr. Traverso said.

Matt D’Andrea moved to the Island in the fall of last year to take the job of assistant superintendent under Jim Weiss, superintendent of schools, whom he will replace in June when Mr. Weiss is set to retire.

He has endured the Island shuffle, from summer to winter rentals, and recently found a rental in Edgartown by word of mouth. “When we advertise for the job, we get a lot of applicants,” Mr. D’Andrea said. “If they have connections to the Island, if they have a place to live, that is a big plus. For people that don’t have a connection, they will come out and interview; when they start the process of trying to find a house, they run into a roadblock. It presents us with a challenge, in that many teachers decide not to come here.”

Attracting quality teachers and retaining those that are here poses a constant challenge for school administrators. “We already have some fantastic teachers in this district, but we have lost some very good teachers because of housing,” Mr. D’Andrea said.

Some proposed strategies include teacher-designated housing and a housing subsidy.

The starting salary for a teacher with a master’s degree is a little over $54,000, according to Mr. Weiss. Mr. Traverso proposes that the school offer a housing subsidy during a teacher’s transitional period and assist with finding rentals for the school district.

Mr. D’Andrea agrees that some type of bridge program is important. “I would love to have transitional housing that enables them to acclimate to the school and the Island community without having to worry about housing,” he said. “They can focus on being a teacher and developing relationships on the Island rather than facing the challenge of the Island shuffle up front.”

On Nantucket, a private nonprofit, the Nantucket Education Trust, developed a 12-unit housing cluster located on property near the high school playing fields. The residential units are offered at below-market rental rates, and provide affordable housing options for school faculty.

When vacancies exist, town employees get first shot, followed by the general public.

Property manager Milen Tsvetkov said four units are currently occupied by Nantucket school employees. A one-bedroom apartment rents for between $1,400 and $1,500 per month.

After years of uncertainty, two Island families find a place to call home.

Tucker Smith, Brandie Lewis, and their daughter Annie are all smiles in their new apartment at Village Court, in Tisbury. –Photos by Ralph Stewart

This is the third article in a series examining the critical shortage of affordable housing on Martha’s Vineyard and its effects on the community. The series began on February 18 with “Martha’s Vineyard housing shortage reaches critical mass.” On March 5, “Vineyard homeless census raises questions, provides few answers” examined homelessness.

Many years of shuffling came to an end when the Nascimento family moved into their new home at Sepiessa Apartments in West Tisbury.
Many years of shuffling came to an end when the Nascimento family moved into their new home at Sepiessa Apartments in West Tisbury.

The demand for, and the scarcity of, affordable housing options on Martha’s Vineyard is unprecedented, according to the people who work on the front lines. Affordable housing goals set forth in the prescient 2001 Housing Needs Assessment (HNA), and subsequent revisions of the study, have consistently fallen short. According to the 2013 HNA, the combination of escalating land values, high construction costs, zoning restrictions, and a pervasive “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) attitude, continue to make a dire situation even worse.

But there are success stories, created in large part by a few small agencies staffed by a handful of people, who stay the course and chip away at this enormous problem, one family at a time. The Island Housing Trust (IHT) is one of those agencies. Executive Director Philippe Jordi recently took The Times to meet two families who, after years of shuffling from one difficult living situation to another, have found permanent homes, in the form of affordable rental housing that was developed by the IHT.

Two-bedroom mansion

The new six-unit apartment building at Village Court in Tisbury.
The new six-unit apartment building at Village Court in Tisbury.

Brandie Lewis sat in her sunny living room, bouncing her laughing infant Annie on her leg, as Annie’s father, Tucker Smith, a carpenter with William Meegan Fine Carpentry, got ready for work. Zak, their chummy lab-mix dog, circled the room, holding his rawhide chew toy in his mouth like a cigar.

This scene of simple domesticity represents a hard-earned win for this young family, and for the people who worked behind the scenes to get them there.

After years of shuffling between a trailer and winter housing, Gisele and Joey Nascimento, Petey, and their two children (not pictured) finally have a year-round home.
After years of shuffling between a trailer and winter housing, Gisele and Joey Nascimento, Petey, and their two children (not pictured) finally have a year-round home.

The two-bedroom apartment is in a newly renovated six-unit building at Village Court, a “workforce housing” community developed by the IHT, tucked away off State Road in Vineyard Haven.

“We were living in a small one-bedroom basement apartment in Oak Bluffs before we moved here,” Ms. Lewis said.

“It was basically just one room,” Mr. Smith said. “We were pretty much on top of each other.”

“Now I feel like I’m living in a mansion,” Ms. Lewis said.

Both Ms. Lewis and Mr. Tucker were born and raised on the Island. Ms. Lewis grew up doing the Island shuffle on a regular basis, and continued doing so as an adult until she found a year-round rental in West Tisbury. “I lived there for eight years,” she said. “The building should have been condemned, but it was a year-round rental so I hung in there. Then the rat problem got really bad. When I told my landlord he said, ‘Well, you can deal with it.’”

Ms. Lewis said she applied to the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority (DCRHA) last spring after she found out she was pregnant. To become eligible, applicants must show proof of income and proof of residency.

A few months later, Ms. Lewis saw a post for the apartment on the M.V. housing rentals Facebook page and called the DCRHA immediately. “I said, ‘Barbara, I want this place!’”

In early December, DCRHA administrative coordinator Barbara Hoffman called Ms. Lewis with the good news.

“I was speechless. I just cried,” Ms. Lewis said. “It’s such a huge relief knowing we never have to move again. The stress of wondering if the owner is going to sell, then finding a place, and moving, is so big. Now the financial burden is much less. Our relationship is better. We’re so much happier and at peace. Sometimes I feel bad because I know so many people who are having trouble finding a place to live.”

Ms. Lewis said affordable housing also allows her to stay home with Annie. “I’m so fortunate to be a stay-at-home mom,” she said. “Without this place I’d be working and paying for childcare. Being able to stay home to raise my daughter is priceless.”

The apartments at Village Court are targeted to the 60 percent area median income (AMI) and below, where the need is greatest, according to Mr. Jordi.

A Village Court two-bedroom apartment is about 700 square feet, and the rent is $1,030 for households earning 60% or less of AMI. Rents for the one-bedroom and other two-bedrooms at Village Court are $701 and $869 respectively, for households earning 50% or less of AMI.

Sepiessa spells home

Joey Nascimento sat at his kitchen table early Monday morning, hair askew, looking like a man who had just worked a double shift the night before at the Steamship Authority.

“I never refuse a shift,” he said. “No matter how cold it is.”

Mr. Nascimento came to the U.S. from Brazil 27 years ago. After five years in Boston, he moved to the Island, doing jobs that needed to be done, driving a truck, working at BFI, and eventually getting his foot in the door at the SSA, working there part-time for six years before being brought on full-time. He and Gisele married 16 years ago. In the summer, their growing family lived in a trailer on a farm where Mr. Nascimento earned the rent by mowing with the tractor. For years, the family did a transcontinental Vineyard shuffle back to Brazil, while Mr. Nascimento stayed and worked on the Island, sometimes separating them for months at a time.

“Those summers in the camper, we all had the same bedroom,” Mr. Nascimento said, laughing. The summer trailer was sometimes used before the temperatures warmed. “I remember one time we went in the trailer in early April and it was crazy cold,” Mr. Nascimento said, as Ms. Nascimento nodded in agreement. “There was also a winter where we had to move houses twice,” Ms. Nascimento said, as Mr. Nascimento nodded in weary agreement. In the winter, they shuffled to winter rentals in West Tisbury and the down-Island towns, and sometimes to Brazil.

“The plan was always to live here,” he said.

The Nascimentos were living in Oak Bluffs when they got the call from Barbara Hoffman in early December.

“I couldn’t believe it. I cried,” Ms. Nascimento said, smiling at her husband.

“It was just like winning the lottery,” Mr. Nascimento said. “It was a very nice Christmas present.”

Mr. Nascimento said he’d forewarned his Oak Bluffs landlord that he might have to move if he won the housing lottery. The landlord didn’t object then, nor did he when Mr. Nascimento moved out. “He was happy for us,” Ms. Nascimento said.

The smell of fresh paint is still in the air. There’s not a scuff on the risers of the stairs that lead to Joey and Gisele’s room and their daughter Emanuelle’s room. Their teenage son Gabriel has a room on the first floor. It’s the first time the children have had their own rooms. For now, the rooms are sparsely appointed with the basics. Gisele said she wants to take her time furnishing their new home. For the first time, she doesn’t have to consider the difficulty of moving the furniture she selects. And she doesn’t have to rush. She’s going to be here awhile.

A three-bedroom unit at Sepiessa Apartments on Clam Point Road in West Tisbury is about 1,100 square feet. Rent is $1,124 for a household earning 60% or less of the AMI. Rents for the one-bedroom and two-bedroom at Sepiessa are $706 and $840 respectively, for households earning 50 percent or less of the AMI.

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The online room-rental and accommodations site has proven irresistible to Island homeowners, but critics say there are consequences.

The Airbnb web site.

For last-minute visitors to Martha’s Vineyard and those looking for a bargain rate, and for homeowners who want to supplement their incomes, Airbnb is a boon. Not so enamored of the online rental site are those working to increase the stock of Island affordable housing, and business people who claim it allows competition without taxation. Irrespective, Airbnb.com appears to be here to stay.

Airbnb, which began life in 2007 as AirBed & Breakfast, is a user-friendly web site for international room rental. It was founded by Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, who, finding it difficult to meet the rent on their San Francisco apartment, inflated three air mattresses in their living room and rented them out during a hotel-filling conference.

They developed a web site to continue the lucrative short-term rentals of their living room, and eventually expanded to more than 800,000 listings in more than 190 countries, according to the web site. Airbnb became one of the pioneers of what is called a “shared economy,” or “collaborative consumption,” bringing the lodging trade into the average Joe’s or Jane’s private home. Since its inception, Airbnb has inspired other sharing startups, like direct competitors VRBO and HomeAway, and car-sharing companies like Uber, Lyft, and Breeze.

Overflow alternative

On the Vineyard, Airbnb has become an alternative to hotels, motels, and traditional B & Bs. A search of Airbnb.com on Feb. 15 for the weekend of Feb. 27 to March 1 (two nights, two guests) produced 70 potential rentals from a $40-per-night private room in Oak Bluffs to a $2,000-per-night entire private home in West Tisbury. The prices in between varied considerably, and were augmented by the service fee charged by Airbnb, and frequently by a cleaning fee.

And there is versatility — even in the summer. A search of Airbnb for the week of June 29 to July 5 produced 68 rentals, from a private room in Edgartown for $95 per night to an entire oceanfront house in Oak Bluffs for $2,542 per night. Also available is a glassed-in private room for $225 per night and a bedroom composed of vintage factory doors for $235 per night (both in Aquinnah), and a sailboat close to the action in Oak Bluffs Harbor at $325 per night.

Megan Ottens-Sargent, who rents out two small bedrooms in her home/art gallery in Aquinnah through Airbnb, used to run what she called a “low-key” traditional B & B. “I was pretty much, and still am, more about overflow,” she said. “I’m not competing with my neighbors’ B & Bs. They would call me when they were booked. That was how I operated before Airbnb.”

A screenshot from Airbnb shows a selection of Island room rentals available on Wednesday of this week.
A screenshot from Airbnb shows a selection of Island room rentals available on Wednesday of this week.

What’s appealing about Airbnb, said users interviewed, is its ease of use to both the host and renter. To book a room or home, a potential renter goes to the web site and fills in the dates, desired location, and number of guests. A variety of filters — price range, room type, amenities, and host language — narrow down the search. A number of options appear in the form of pictures with an inset map that shows the location of each rental. A click on a photo brings up details, renter-generated reviews, and a star rating system that aid the potential renter in finding the ideal property.

It’s about as simple for the host to advertise a rental on the site. Betsy Shands posts two rooms in her Vineyard Haven home on Airbnb. “I was on in 2013 with just one room, and added the second in 2014,” she said.

Ms. Shands found that Airbnb gave her the flexibility to have the rooms available when her children visited in the summer. Dates can be easily blocked out for family visits or off-season trips.

The subscribing process for the host is step-by-step, and includes supporting nontechnical documentation. “It was really easy,” Ms. Shands said. “I don’t fancy myself terribly technical, but I had it up within a few minutes.”

Homeowners can post rules regarding smoking and noise, as well as amenities like availability of Wi-Fi and transportation. And there are reviews of the renters available — a tool hosts may use to turn down a potential renter they may judge to be less than ideal.

It is a luxury not available to inn and hotel owners, who are bound by laws with regard to whom they may turn down and the responsibility to pay taxes.

Not a fair share

John Tiernan, co-owner of the Dockside Inn in Oak Bluffs, is not concerned with the ability of Airbnb to siphon off business. “It’s not about filling rooms,” he said. “Even hotels that are kind of notoriously run down, from the day the kids get out of school in June to the first week of September, should be celebrating 95 or more percent occupancy.”

But what does rankle the Oak Bluffs businessman is the effect of the rental site on available rental-housing stock, and the ability of Airbnb users to operate like an inn without paying an occupancy tax, or any service fee.

“What homeowner on Martha’s Vineyard would want to rent out their home for a year at a reasonable rate, when they know they can just go into business for themselves without town approval, without paying [occupancy] taxes, very easily by just subscribing to Airbnb?” he said.

“It’s brutal,” he continued. “I probably talk to 10 college kids a week that want to come out and work at the hotel. I say, all right, get your housing sorted. Out of the 10, I’ll probably get one call back. It affects every hotel, every retail shop, every bar, every store.”

Mr. Tiernan said as with every Island inn and hotel, a state occupancy tax of 11.7 percent is levied on every stay of 30 days or less. Of that, approximately 5 percent is returned to the town in which the business is located.

“If there’s 1,200 rooms to rent on Martha’s Vineyard, and every taxable hotel room has four guests in it, 5,000 people are staying in occupancy-tax-paying rooms,” he said. “We know that there are 100,000 tourist transients laying their heads on beds every day from basically May through October. When you take that into account, there are 95,000 people that are not paying occupancy tax.”

Mr. Tiernan thinks this represents lost revenue for towns that are already strapped to support services in the summer. “There are as many people visiting Oak Bluffs daily as at Disneyland,” he said, “and we’re trying to clean up with a minute fraction of the crew. I believe that the occupancy tax was designed to offset the impact on a town like Oak Bluffs with an influx of 100,000 people.”

Josh Goldstein, manager of the Mansion House on Main Street in Vineyard Haven, agreed. “We wish the towns would be more aggressive in collecting the occupancy taxes,” he said. “It’s about a town having more money for snow removal, for a new police car, for paving the roads. All the towns are missing out on a big chunk of revenue that could be benefiting all of us.”

“It’s also a safety issue,” he added. “The fire department doesn’t inspect these places; the health department doesn’t inspect these places.”

In response to complaints from the hospitality industry, particularly in Boston, state legislators are beginning to take a look at the provisions of the current occupancy tax.

“No matter how much room tax is, I don’t think it would stop my business,” Megan Ottens-Sargent said. “You raise the rates or add it on. I’m still cheaper than the hotels.”

Betsy Shands agreed. “The formula [Airbnb] came up with really works,” she said. “And more people are tuning into it.”

Other consequences

That formula may also be affecting the availability of affordable rentals. Increasingly, house owners who might have been inclined to rent for the summer or winter and take advantage of a county program designed to make up the difference between affordable and market rates are not renting.

The Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce allows chamber members to post job openings, and allows anyone to post housing openings for those. According to executive director Nancy Gardella, “Housing was at its critical point last year — a crisis point — for both year-round residents looking for housing and seasonal employees.” Is this related to the popularity of Airbnb? “It’s possible,” she said.

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The Wampanoag Tribe is battling to construct a bingo hall on tribal lands.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) last week announced it would distribute more than $651 million to 586 Native American tribes in 34 states. The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) will benefit from the federal largesse.

HUD announced that the tribe will receive $462,176.

Indian Housing Block Grant (IHBG) allocations are distributed each year to eligible Indian tribes or their tribally designated housing entities for a range of affordable-housing activities, according to a HUD press release. The amount of each grant is based on a formula that considers local needs and housing units under management by the tribe or designated entity.

“Our nation is at its best when everyone has a fair chance to thrive,” HUD Secretary Julián Castro said. “These funds will support the innovative work Native American tribes and families are doing to build a more prosperous future. Our partnership with these local leaders today will create better housing opportunities, more robust economic development and stronger communities tomorrow.”

“We have been receiving this grant for many years, and we are thankful for the support from HUD that enables us to provide housing to our tribal members,” Wampanoag chairman Tobias Vanderhoop said.

Willard Marden, tribal housing administrator, said the grant money would be used to maintain affordability and help maintain and upgrade the tribe’s 25-year-old housing stock. There are 33 houses located on tribal lands, of which 26 are rentals.


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Although state and national economies continue to rebound, more and more Islanders struggle to find housing.

From left: DCRHA administrator Terri Keech, executive director David Vigneault, and administrative coordinator Barbara Hoffman work on the front lines of the housing dilemma. – Photo by Michael Cummo

This is the first article in a series about the critical shortage of affordable housing on Martha’s Vineyard and its effects on the community.

While the thought of summer gives some Islanders solace during the days of single-digit temperatures and double-digit snowfalls, it also brings trepidation to many. Renters with winter leases and homeowners who depend on summer rental income are scrambling for summer shelter, and competition is fierce. According to people who work on the front lines, the demand, and the scarcity of options, is unprecedented.

“The first level of affordability here is a year-round lease, which is virtually nonexistent right now,” David Vigneault, executive director of the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority (DCRHA), told The Times. “There was virtually nothing this fall for year-round rentals.”

The DCRHA serves as the rental property manager for the Island Housing Trust, and is charged with increasing year-round housing opportunities for moderate-income residents. Island residents making less than 80 percent of Area Median Income (AMI) — $63,900 for a family of four in Dukes County — are eligible for assistance. The DCRHA owns or manages 79 apartments on 12 properties in five Island towns. There are currently 235 individuals and families on the waiting list for year-round housing and rental assistance.

According to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) 2013 housing needs assessment, 2,245 households, about 30 percent of the Island, may qualify for housing assistance.

Mr. Vigneault thinks the severity of the current housing shortage has its roots, in part, in the financial crisis of 2008. “People drained savings and defaulted on credit obligations while their incomes, which had been relatively stagnant, dropped significantly,” he said. “When the economy tightened, all of a sudden we had more year-round rentals, ironically just when Islanders couldn’t take advantage of them.”

Mr. Vigneault said the landscape changed as the economy improved, and property owners who were previously satisfied with the steady income from one renter saw greater profit with weekly rentals. “As a result, quite a few more folks were displaced from year-round housing that they might have had for five or six years,” he said. “It’s a practical conundrum. Wall Street is doing well. That means on the Island, people get a little more work and a little more income. That also means seasonal folks can spend more time here, and that means year-rounders have less housing. These factors have built to a critical point.”

While increased weekly rental income can be good for Island homeowners who do the “Island shuffle,” moving from winter to summer quarters, they are running out of places to go. “There was always a percentage of people that shuffled,” Mr. Vigneault said. “Years ago, you could find decent summer rentals, or live in a teepee if you wanted to, but it was a choice. There might have been some people camping in the state forest last summer by choice. But a lot of them weren’t. Some people were still there when the snow started to fall.”

Homeless professionals
“The idea of homelessness in an urban area isn’t the same here,” Mr. Vigneault said. “On the Island, it can mean a double-income family and no housing after June 1. Being without housing here is really significant, all up and down our income spectrum. I just spent an hour and a half on the phone with the assistant superintendent of schools, who told me there are a number of teachers who are panicked because they don’t have a place to live as of May 31. The additional snow days put them into the last week of June. That’s the better part of a month without housing.”

The 2013 MVC housing needs assessment calculated the “affordability gap” — the difference between what a household earning the median income can afford and the median house price — at $213,500.

Statewide, the Vineyard affordability gap was second only to Nantucket, which had an affordability chasm of $646,000. Currently the Nantucket Housing Authority, which provides low-income rentals, has a waiting list of over eight years. Housing Nantucket, the DCRHA equivalent geared to moderate-income residents,has 30 rental units, and some applicants have been on the waiting list for more than four years. Angst over affordable housing on Nantucket is so acute, it was cited in a Feb. 1 article in the Boston Globe as a contributing factor to the recent rash of suicides — seven middle-aged Nantucketers have committed suicide since October.

From left: Farley Pedler, David Vigneault, Fielding Moore, Abbe Burt, Dan Seidman, Richard Leonard, Paul Moreau, Tristan Israel, Mary Brissette, and Philippe Jordi at a ground-breaking ceremony on Oct. 17, 2012, for 129 Lake Street in Vineyard Haven. – Photo courtesy of Philippe Jordi
From left: Farley Pedler, David Vigneault, Fielding Moore, Abbe Burt, Dan Seidman, Richard Leonard, Paul Moreau, Tristan Israel, Mary Brissette, and Philippe Jordi at a ground-breaking ceremony on Oct. 17, 2012, for 129 Lake Street in Vineyard Haven. – Photo courtesy of Philippe Jordi

“The affordable housing shortage is the most critical since I started working here in 2007,” Housing Nantucket Executive Director Anne Kuszpa told The Times. “I think substance abuse probably plays a big role in the suicides, but there’s no question the anxiety level over housing is the highest I’ve seen it. There’s nothing out there. I don’t see any of our units opening up any time soon.”

Long-standing issue
The dearth of year-round rental housing is not a new issue on the Vineyard. The 2001 Housing Needs Assessment, done under the auspices of the MVC, stated, “While winter rentals may be more affordable, they render many households virtually homeless during the summer, estimated to involve approximately 23 percent of renters who have lived on the Island for at least five years.” The survey illuminated some of the extreme hardships working people endured to live here — a two-income family making $90,000 moving 18 times in 11 years; people living in cars, or renting cots in a basement with no running water for $700 a month.

The survey helped spark the creation of the DCRHA to give struggling Islanders a roof over their heads while other options, ownership or renting, were worked out. “That’s how it was imagined in 2001, and it has had some good success,” Mr. Vigneault said.

Morgan Woods, a 60-unit, mixed-income housing complex in Edgartown, and the largest mixed-income housing development on Martha’s Vineyard, was considered such a success when it opened in 2007. But according to property manager Maria Lopez, turnover is rare, and the number of applicants, and their level of desperation, has soared since she began working there a year and a half ago.

“When I first started, I’d see two, three people a week,” Ms. Lopez told The Times. “Now I have a nonstop stream of people. I see desperate families — some are living out of their cars. One applicant said she was being evicted because she asked the landlord for help with the mold that was making her baby sick. We have 300 people on the wait list. It’s very frustrating not to be able to help.”

Inventory shortage
In its first five years, the DCRHA was funded by private donations. Since 2006, operations have been funded entirely by the six Island towns with money from Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds. Mr. Vigneault lauded Island voters for their support of the DCRHA. “They also put half a million dollars into rental assistance every year, which is pretty darn wonderful,” he said. “The problem is we have a lot of money on the table that’s not being used, because we can’t get the landlords right now. We get this great town support, but for the past two years I’ve had to give money back to four towns because they don’t have the landlords. We advertise for landlords and get no response. We have an abundance of housing here. None of it is for rent year-round.”

Mr. Vigneault said the DCRHA receives a steady stream of calls for help from people it cannot assist. “About half of the households that apply do not have the income that they need to rent the apartment,” he said. Applicants must be able to pay a minimum of 50 percent of the rent, although some exceptions are made for seniors and the disabled. “There are folks who are really trying, and have significant need, and we have to say ‘We’re sorry, we can’t do it.’ This is very unsatisfying for us.”

Few options
Heather Goodwin is a third-generation Islander in such a plight. Ms. Goodwin is a single mother with a son in ninth grade at MVRHS, and for the past four years she’s been physically unable to work. She currently shares a basement apartment with two roommates and her son. Her share of the rent is $750 per month.

“I’m glad to have a roof over my head, but I don’t know how much longer I can stay,” she told The Times. “I have no idea how I’m going to pay the rent next month.” Ms. Goodwin, formerly a lab technician and dog groomer, said she has letters from four doctors confirming she’s physically unable to work, but her claim was denied by the Social Security Administration. She’s currently appealing the decision. In the meantime, other than child support, she has no steady income.

“I’m stuck in this netherworld of not being able to work, but not on disability as of yet,” she said. “I don’t want to be a barnacle, but shouldn’t a person like me be a priority to find housing for, instead of being thrown out onto the streets? It’s not just me. A lot of people are struggling. There are hard-working tradesmen that are having trouble. There’s going to be an implosion here. There’s not going to be anyone around to do the work that the rich people want done.”

Ms. Goodwin said she went to Mr. Vigneault on several occasions for help. “He basically told me I didn’t make enough money,” she said. “He said there was a shelter in Hyannis. That’s not helpful.”

No good answers
“We’re trying to figure out a practical and humane response to our own needs, and frankly that’s hard for some folks to get their heads around, and it becomes personal,” Mr. Vigneault said. “I get those calls, ‘Why aren’t you helping so-and-so?’ And you say, because there’s no income. There are dozens of situations — they can be single parents, people with medical issues, or seasonally employed — that we are not equipped to assist. The [DCRHA] was imagined as a way to sustain working people on the Island. It was not imagined as a low- or no-income program.”

Mr. Vigneault said Section 8 funds for low- or no-income housing from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) were gutted during the Bush administration, and today the demand far outstrips supply. “The last time we checked with a state office about Section 8 applications, there was a 12- to 14-year wait,” he said. “Before the Department of Transitional Assistance money went away [in 2008], we used to have a couple of apartments that were very quietly used by dozens of families for six months to a year, on their way to more permanent solutions,” Mr. Vigneault said. “Some went to greener pastures off-Island, and some of those people remain in our community today. That was before the funding was shut off.”

“We have a really hard time for some reason addressing the fact that the market is not up to the practical task of sustaining the people who we need to sustain our community,” Mr. Vigneault said. “We put a lot of emphasis on ownership. Ownership is nice, but rental is what we need. It’s what we need to stabilize the workforce, the families trying to keep this community what it is. There are folks who say, ‘I got off the boat, I roughed it for a while; if they don’t like it they can get back on the boat.’ Can some folks up and leave? Absolutely, and many have. The MVC assessment shows a significant drop in the 20- to 30-year-old population. It’s harder and harder for young people to stay here or to move here and make a go of it.”
“Economically and morally, we have the opportunity to do more than what we’re doing,” Mr. Vigneault said. “Our community is a very wealthy one, and not just in cash, and not just in moderately low taxes, but very rich in talented people with a lot of expertise. It’s incomprehensible to me that our community can’t address this problem. I hate to think it will take someone dying under a tarp in the state forest for us to actually get serious about this.”

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The three-house project in West Tisbury took nine years to complete and provided plenty of difficult lessons along the way.

One of three energy efficient homes, all of a similar style, Jim Feiner built on Dr. Fisher Road in West Tisbury as part of private effort to generate affordable housing. — Photo by Tony Omer


In 2005, James Feiner of Chilmark and Niki Patton of West Tisbury set out to do their part to address the need for affordable housing on Martha’s Vineyard. Nine years later, the three new houses on Dr. Fisher Road in West Tisbury, one sold at market rate and the other two priced below market rate, are occupied by families grateful for their new homes.

The road to completion included town board meetings, financial setbacks and opposition from abutters. And when all was said and done the project  off of Old County Road just east of the West Tisbury School resulted in financial losses for the two partners, losses that both agree might have been averted if they had begun the project with the hard-earned knowledge they possess now.

In spite of the loss, Mr. Feiner, a principal of Feiner Real Estate and by his own admission an affordable housing advocate, said he would consider other similar projects in the future. “I could not be happier,“ he said, “we have created a mixed-use development that serves local people with varying ages and needs. The kids will have a two-minute walk on a path to the West Tisbury School.”

Mr. Feiner bought the three-acre property at 30 Dr. Fisher Road with partner and friend Ms. Patton at the height of the real estate market price boom in 2005 in with the hope of building some affordable housing for year-round Islanders, he said.

“I’ve made a lot of money selling real estate that could have been affordable housing,” he told The Times in a phone conversation. “I wanted to be socially responsible and help replenish the market. I look at it like replanting trees.”

Mr. Feiner said he and Ms. Patton saw great promise in a town bylaw designed to promote affordable housing projects that allowed for the creation of multiple houses on a single parcel of land provided two thirds or more were deed restricted for perpetual affordable homes.

There were difficult financial issues to overcome from the beginning, including a lack of expected funding and a reduction in the number of houses they would be allowed to build on the land.

Economic hurdles

Mr. Feiner and Ms. Patton had expected to get help to purchase the three acres of land from the non-profit Island Affordable Housing Fund, a nonprofit designed to assist affordable housing projects, but the fund was having its own financial difficulties. It has since suspended operations.

At the time, Mr. Feiner said real estate prices looked like they would never come down, but the lengthy process of learning to navigate the regulatory labyrinth coincided with a decline in the Island real estate market.

“It took almost four years to get through the boards and get the plan approved,” he said.

They bought the three-acre lot for $525,000. It was worth considerably less a few years later, he said.

“In order to make the project work financially we needed to build four houses on the lot,” Mr. Feiner said. “We learned after the land purchase that the zoning board would only allow three houses, a house per acre and the conservation commission wanted us to protect an ecologically fragile frost bottom on the land.”

To save money they looked into building modular houses. “But we couldn’t build modular because the road was too narrow,” he said, “and stick-built construction costs were too high.”

The land lay vacant until the economy began to improve. When interest rates dropped precipitously, the tide finally turned, Mr. Feiner said. Construction began when a young local contractor, Farley Peddler, who had built affordable houses for others, stepped up with affordable plans and a willingness to work within the project’s restricted budget.

Help along the way

Philippe Jordi, executive director the Island Housing Trust (IHT), an Island non-profit affordable housing group helped shepherd the project along in its later stages. “Philippe was by our side at all the meetings with the boards, and [he] had all the answers,” Mr. Feiner said.

Ms. Patton, who invested money in the project from a small savings, hoped to help finance the project and end up with one of the affordable homes. “I didn’t get a house and I lost a sizable portion of my investment,” she said. By 2011 she was unable to continue funding the project but continued her involvement.

“If we knew then what we know now this project might have turned out differently,” Ms. Patton said. “From what we learned we would have approached some of the issues in different ways. I think we went into this with too much confidence. I would have asked more questions and sussed out more support from the conservation commission and the zoning board before the purchase. I would have been more humble and transparent.”

Affordable housing nonprofits like IHT, Habitat MV, and the Dukes County Housing Authority can benefit from tax breaks, land donations and support from town community preservation funds, Mr. Jordi said. It can be more difficult but it is not impossible for private investors who attempt to build affordable housing without the benefits enjoyed by nonprofits, he said.

Cozy Hearth

Several years before the Feiner-Patton project began, Island electrical contractor Bill Bennett pooled resources with employees, friends, and family members to purchase an 11-acre parcel on Watcha Road near the Edgartown-West Tisbury Road in Edgartown with plans to build an 11-house affordable housing subdivision. Headed by Mr. Bennett, the Cozy Hearth Corporation (CHC), setup as a non-profit corporation, gave up when the project became too costly following a protracted regulatory process that began with the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and ended in a legal battle with the Edgartown Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA). Although Mr. Bennett and CHC won an appeal to have the ZBA’s decision overturned in court, they gave up in 2009 after nearly three years of legal wrangling.

Mr. Bennett has since installed two solar arrays, each capable producting 250,000 watts annually, on the land. Mr. Bennett said the abutters did not oppose the solar project.

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On Saturday, a group of Islanders met to discuss the increasing lack of summer housing options.

A group of Islanders met Saturday to discuss the lack of year-round rentals. — Photo by Jason Claypool

In the Oak Bluffs library meeting room Saturday, more than a dozen Island residents met to discuss their frustrating search for summer housing. The seasonal shift from off-season to summer housing, a phenomenon more commonly known as the Vineyard shuffle, is not new, but it has become increasingly difficult according to some of those in the room.

Meeting organizers Jayson Claypool and Mellisa Zaccaria said they recently had to make a housing choice every day. They decided where they would park their truck for a night’s sleep.

Stonemason Jeremiah Miller said he did not expect to be scrambling this summer to house his family until their long-term rental unexpectedly became short-term. He must find housing for his wife and two children by July 1.

Lauri Bradway has decades of community service on her 27-year Island resumé but she does not have a home today.

Also searching for housing is Elizabeth Toomey, who served on an Island task force that created the model for the Island Housing Trust, a nonprofit housing organization that is on the frontlines of the effort to create affordable housing.

They were among 17 people gathered in the library meeting room last Saturday afternoon. “This is not an affordability problem,” meeting coordinator Mellisa Zaccaria said. “This is a housing availability problem.” The meeting evolved from a social media campaign Ms. Zaccaria originated in an attempt to find housing for her and her partner, Mr. Claypool. She said the response from people in a similar predicament led her to plan the gathering.

The shuffle

In an email invitation to housing officials titled “Emergency housing solutions meeting in Oak Bluffs,” Ms. Zaccaria said, “Jayson Claypool and I are a couple in Martha’s Vineyard who are currently unable to obtain housing due to a nefarious seasonal rental craze that I’m sure you are familiar with, The Island Shuffle.

“Jayson owns a successful technology solutions LLC and has two children in which he has joint custody. I am a writer and an artist and have convinced Jayson to step in the spotlight and we have begun filming our story, ‘The Shuffle.’”

Ms. Zaccaria said that she and Mr. Claypool had been without housing since April 25 despite searching for months utilizing Facebook housing groups, both Island newspapers, Craigslist, and word of mouth.

“This is not due to a lack of money, but to a lack of housing opportunities,” she said. “Since we became familiar faces on these forums and many saw our post of our first night sleeping in the car, hundreds of other Islanders have responded and stepped forward and are divulging that they are close to or in a similar predicament.”

She said the MV Housing Rental pages on Facebook had evolved into a forum for discussion and debate between owners and renters. “It’s becoming clear that there is a crisis since the summer rental season is coming to a close mid May, and there are hundreds moving into their cars or simply forced to leave altogether.”

On Saturday, Ms. Zaccaria said that friends had provided temporary quarters. “We’re back to the truck on May 10,” she said.

Rental squeeze

On Saturday, meeting attendees were invited to share their stories and to brainstorm ways in which newcomers and long-term residents can access dependable year-round Island housing.

Several in the audience commented on condition of anonymity, citing a fear of being blackballed as troublemakers by Island property owners. Mr. Claypool said several friends had urged him to remain silent about his housing predicament for the same reason.

Several housing advocates attended the meeting, including David Vigneault, executive director of Dukes County Regional Housing Authority, Ewell Hopkins, the former executive director of the now defunct Island Affordable Housing Fund and a newly elected member of the Oak Bluffs planning board, and Marie Doubleday, a licensed mental health counselor and Oak Bluffs representative on the Island Housing Trust.

Mr. Vigneault said the extreme rental squeeze today had its roots in the economic downturn of 2008. “Houses weren’t selling and a good number of them were converted to rental housing,” he said. “So the rental stock improved by 50 to 60 units for several years. Now the real estate market is back and many of those rental properties are off the market. There is no evil conspiracy going on.”

Mr. Vigneault said that town governments are becoming more sensitive to the issue. “There are a lot of new people in place willing to take action,” he said.

Mr. Hopkins said that the Island’s average weekly wage was 29 percent below the state average and the Island median rent was 17 percent above the state average. The median home price was 54 percent above the state average, he said, quoting from a housing needs assessment completed by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) in June 2013.

Mr. Hopkins said commercial interests are served by protecting the Island’s image as a carefree vacation spot. “Because of tourism, we don’t want to tell the world that things that happen there, also happen here,” he said. Mr. Hopkins added that the Island’s isolation exacerbates the problem. “We don’t have (comprehensive) social services here, so we do the things that we can think to do.”

The Dukes County Regional Housing Authority provides subsidies to landlords intended to persuade them to forego summer rentals in favor of year-round rentals. Ms. Doubleday said communities need to find more landlords willing to take those subsidies.

She also commented on an affordability gap highlighted in a MVC report on Island income and housing costs. Ms. Doubleday expressed frustration with state income markers used to qualify residents for affordable housing opportunities. “Many residents cannot afford affordable housing,” she said. “Their income is not high enough to qualify, and the program cannot help them.” For example, a single renter must show between 40 to 50 percent of the Dukes County average median income of $51,700, or about $22-26,000 to qualify.

A second meeting is planned for May 14 at a site to be determined, Ms. Zaccaria told the Times this week. Updates on the May 12 meeting will be posted at www.facebook.com/groups/theshuffledocumentary, Ms. Zaccaria said.