A watershed moment in the affordable housing effort


News this week that Island Affordable Housing Fund (IAHF), now called Martha’s Vineyard Housing Fund (MVHF) faces foreclosure on its Bradley Square, Oak Bluffs, multi-use development property marks the official end of Martha’s Vineyard affordable housing, phase one.

It’s been a poorly conceived, scattered and undisciplined effort that has done some good, made some progress, but cost too much, been too inflexible in its strategies, and ultimately not met the challenge. The deflation of the IAHF/MVHF organization — the organization that was the ground-floor inspiration and early fundraising juggernaut for affordable housing development in 2000 and the following few years — completes a transformation of the key private, nonprofit housing organizations, all of whom now face difficult and uncertain futures.

So, the general, Island-wide discussion of the need for affordable housing is tamed these days. After “Martha’s Vineyard: Preserving Community — An Island-wide Housing Needs Assessment,” conducted by John J. Ryan of Development Cycles for the Island Affordable Housing Fund, was released in November 2001, voters recognized the dire implications of Mr. Ryan’s study. They acknowledged the grave shortage of adequate housing to rent and to own, they reflected upon the steep run-up of real estate values that has, along with an otherwise high cost of living, effectively said Keep Out to Islanders of modest income.

Voters agreed that to stiff-arm an entire class of Islanders would make the community and the lives of all of us poorer. They were persuaded that steps could be taken to deal with the matter, though they winced at the expense Mr. Ryan estimated would be incurred to overcome the housing shortfall. There was widespread pitching in to get the hard work started.

But, being Islanders, they also wanted to do that hard work on their terms. That meant, for the most part, expensive, single family houses, for purchase by individuals or families that were working and, by mainland standards, reasonably well compensated. The key was heavy subsidy, and the payoff, for housing advocates, was that the project housing looked and felt like the Vineyard ought to look and feel, or at least it conformed to the advocates’ proprietary sense of what fits and what doesn’t. It was less about those in need of housing and more about how the housing we’d create would please us and keep our real estate values plumped up. Besides, till a few years ago, money was plentiful.

So, the progress was almost exclusively in non-commercial, uneconomic, subsidized projects, most of them small-scale, many not yet free of the mire of regulatory scrutiny and legal blocking actions. When Mr. Ryan updated his numbers in 2005, 95 affordable housing ownership units had been created, either from scratch or by rehab; and 83 year-round rentals had been made available, either by building new or rehabbing, or converting for year-round rental dwellings that had formerly been summer rental units. A total of 165 additional units had been permitted, were tied up in litigation, or were under construction. The need that had been documented in 2001 was 467, including below-market rentals, market rentals, and housing to own for long-term residents who had been renters during their Island residence of at least 10 years. In addition, in 2001, more than 12 percent of Island renters — that is, people who had found places to rent, as distinct from those who needed a place to rent — were experiencing “critical” problems, typically rents that were unaffordable.

In 2001, Mr. Ryan estimated that more than $28 million in subsidies would be needed, in per-unit amounts of as much as $100,000, to put in place by 2005 the housing that was identified as needed in 2001. We haven’t spent nearly that much to date, though we’ve spent a very great deal, and the per-unit subsidies have been, in fact, much higher.

So, what’s been accomplished has not been nearly enough, and that it has almost all been the result of the efforts of too small a group of dedicated affordable housing supporters, relying on a combination of donations from generous individuals and businesses and, looking ahead, on the willingness of voters to put the bite on Vineyard taxpayers. Today, Island voters and taxpayers have no idea what the need for housing is, how it has changed over the decade and, most important, what would be a sound strategy going forward. We need a new plan.

MVHF, as Island Housing Trust has, is making a new start. That start must include a recognition that: a) modestly priced housing in a community should not be financed exclusively by public funds, though public may be key; and b) many modest-income families might prefer and ultimately benefit from privately developed housing with no strings, except the mortgage; c) that a variety of types of housing — rental and ownership — are crucial; and that d) people who are not Islanders know how to do this stuff — witness Morgan Woods, Island Elderly Housing, and federal funding sources for housing.

The conversation about affordable housing that raged in 2000 and 2001, and that has now withered significantly, needs badly to be revived, and not only in the small circle of affordable housing advocates who are heavily represented on the boards of the several nonprofit organizations that work feverishly in support of housing efforts. The debate must be wider, and here are several questions that should be a part of that debate:

Should subsidies drawn in largest part from taxpayers, many of whom do not vote here, and also from private individuals and organizations, be the chief funding source for the housing we need? Don’t the Land Bank’s two percent fee, as well as its acquisitions, all help to inflate the real estate prices, intensifying the challenge to efforts to secure housing for modest income Islanders, efforts already unable to keep up with the need? And if all of the affordable housing comes with subsidies and with the strings that are associated with subsidized housing and permanent affordability attached, limiting or eliminating the owner’s access to the appreciated value of his home equity, aren’t we creating a class of Islanders, unlike you or me, who forfeit one of the chief values of homeownership, namely the use of equity to send the kids to college or plan for retirement, or add a wing for an aged relative? Is it our determination to block even selective increases in residential density, as proposed for example in the Cozy Hearth plan? That sound, private initiative received appallingly little support from housing advocates and, doing so, frustrated commercial developers who may have been willing to increase the housing stock? Have we maintained control of housing growth in support of high real estate values and Island style by leaning on taxpayers and dimming the financial futures of a set of our neighbors?