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affordable housing

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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.