A perverse strategy


Lots of Islanders have housing Odysseys to tell, and most are harrowing. There will be more such stories.

At the beginning of this decade, when the Island Affordable Housing Fund released its first housing needs assessment, the narrative account of the problem was chillier than an uninsulated beach house on a February day: “In the 1990s, Martha’s Vineyard added 2,700 seasonal and part-time homes and 1,000 owner-occupied homes but built fewer than 50 new year-round rental apartments and distributed less than 20 youth lots for affordable homeownership. During the same period, local employers added more than 1,500 relatively low-paying service and retail jobs. Here are some of the numbers that illustrate the imbalance between Island housing costs and wages: high home prices 85 percent above the statewide median; high rents at least 30 percent above the statewide median; and low wages 27 percent below the statewide average.”

It’s all about high costs, low pay. But we knew that. And it hasn’t changed. What does it mean? It means that, across the demographic of ordinary folk — people who grew up here, skilled and well-paid workers from the Vineyard or the mainland, older Islanders of moderate income — few will be able to become our successful and secure long-term neighbors. This is despite all the energy expended over the past 10 years on housing.

The Vineyard has chosen a defective approach to solving the problems created by the high cost of housing, and beyond housing, by the oppressively high general cost of living. We’ve elected to focus on heavily subsidized, publicly provided housing for low income Islanders to own. We’ve made the choice to avoid increasing housing density and to avoid encouraging construction of substantial numbers of rental units, which would be less problematic and more helpful to more Islanders. (Edgartown did the right thing with its Morgan Woods development.) And we’ve elected to defend against vigorous economic growth.

It’s an expensive strategy. Consider that in Chilmark more than $2 million in taxpayer cash and tens of thousands of dollars in land value will be used to underwrite the development of just six affordable rental-housing units and six lots for moderate income Islanders to lease and build houses. That’s on more than 20 acres of land. In West Tisbury, a housing project nearly ready for occupancy will subsidize each housing unit to the tune of more than $200,000.

And it’s a strategy that is torturously and endlessly complicated. Last week, in West Tisbury, selectmen and affordable housing committee members wrestled with the question of whether low-income affordable housing owners might leave the houses they build to their children if, in the apparently troublesome event, that the child is successful and would not qualify as a low-income earner. The decision these generously well-intentioned people reached was to imagine that the guidelines they will use to govern the disposition and management of the housing will ensure the permanent affordability of each property, but not to inquire too closely into how the rules will actually be applied.

And, at the Chilmark town meeting, voters did something similar. They decided that the rules must preserve the perpetual affordability of the low-income housing the town will create, but, of course, how the rules will work in individual, real-life cases will be determined case by case.

In each and every case, this approach will result in the buildings that are created being permanent, but the families they house will be transient. It’s desperately wrong headed, if building community is the goal.

Collaterally, and sadly, this hobbled focus on housing has failed to embrace the need for steady, substantial economic growth, which is, after all, the engine of affordability. Rather, we appear to have decided to place a limited number of families in affordable dwellings, with caps on the appreciation of real estate value, in what is for most Americans their largest single asset, and to restrain economic growth so that moderate income becomes a life sentence. It’s a perverse strategy.