The high price of affordability


The provision of needed affordable housing on Martha’s Vineyard has become exclusively the responsibility of a series of public-private partnerships. Zoning and development rules prevent the market from contributing much, if at all.

Taxpayers contribute, as do generous private donors in response to the solicitations of several nonprofit organizations that support the affordable housing cause. The effort has been successful, but not successful enough to meet the identified demand for affordable shelter, as documented in authoritative reports since 2000.

It has become a core conceit, among nonprofit housing groups and especially among municipal officials charged with deciding how to deploy tax receipts in support of the affordable housing effort, that housing created using public funds must be guaranteed perpetually affordable. That is, once it is sold at below market values, it must continue to be sold below market when the original inhabitants choose to depart. The successor owners, including descendants who would in the normal course of events inherit a family home, must themselves qualify under low-income guidelines in order to come into possession of the property.

The question that has roiled the waters recently in affordable housing circles is how to guarantee that perpetual affordability when banks require the freedom to sell at market value properties they’ve taken mortgages on, should the borrower default. Members of the West Tisbury planning board, listening recently to a request from the Island Housing Trust (IHT) for an amendment to a special permit for the eight-house project at 250 State Road, learned that there can be no guarantee, unless the town itself, or some other entity with taxing authority is prepared to put its full faith and credit behind the lending. IHT needs to add language specifically allowing affordable housing properties to be sold at market value in foreclosure. IHT also furnishes conditions which will alert it to struggling homeowners and permit IHT intervention to avoid foreclosure and keep the property in the affordable category. But there is no guarantee of success, in such dire cases.

The question comes before the planning board because West Tisbury permitted the project and contributed nearly $600,000 of Community Preservation Act money toward its completion. The language change IHT needs, to broaden the array of willing, competitive lenders who may finance low and moderate income buyers, is a departure from the general understanding town voters had when they voted the money.

In light of all this, and having in mind the hard times on which Island Affordable Housing Fund fell recently, what should the West Tisbury planners, the town selectmen, and ultimately the voters do?

First, planners should re-decide the matter of the special permit. We suspect, and we hope, they will decide to accept the new language and confirm the permit. Next, voters should be presented with the opportunity to confirm their decision to contribute the funds. Again, we suspect, and we hope, they will do so.

Certainly, affordable housing supporters, private or public, must accept that building affordable housing to be sold at below market rates to low and modest income owners, but funded by lenders that are disciplined by the market, cannot come with guarantees. Such a durable assurance requires a financially powerful third party guarantor. And West Tisbury voters may decide that they and their taxes are willing to stand behind the mortgages given by affordable housing property owners. The town has already stepped in to derail a foreclosure that had wiped away the deeded restrictions against resale at other than affordable prices. That effort cost the town money and time. It may not want to get in another tangle like that one. We think they would be wise to avoid doing so.

Or, voters may decide that putting the town on the line behind a guarantee of perpetual affordability for housing the town helps create is just the ticket. Either way, it’s a decision voters must make.