Where to from here for Martha’s Vineyard Housing Fund

The Bradley Square site in Oak Bluffs, now in foreclosure. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Several years ago, a property located at the corner of Dukes County Avenue and Masonic Avenue in Oak Bluffs captured the attention of the Island Affordable Housing Fund (IAHF), the neighborhood and eventually the entire Island.

This lot, vacant for decades, was occupied by a rather plain and undistinguished wood-frame building that had fallen into disrepair. The property was about to be acquired by a developer with plans to demolish the structure to make way for new commercial space.

But, this building was not just another old house that needed work. For a number of years it had housed the family and the ministry of the Rev. Oscar Denniston, and was thought to be the first African-American place of worship on Martha’s Vineyard. The prospect of losing this important piece of the historical fabric of our Island community to the wrecking ball was unacceptable, and the response was quick and decisive.

In a matter of days, a fundraising effort coordinated by the Island Affordable Housing Fund was able to secure enough financial support through donations and pledges to put a down payment on the property. So far, so good. The Denniston Building had been saved for the time being, but now what to do?

The IAHF issued an RFP for the development of the site and, as the primary mission of the fund was to increase the number of housing opportunities for persons of low and moderate income, the emphasis was on the creation of as many residential units as could reasonably be located on the property. A response from a local architectural firm proposed the creation of two new three-story mixed-use buildings fronting on Dukes County Avenue. Each of these structures, referred to as the Bradley buildings, would house two “affordable living/work spaces” on the ground floor, two affordable apartments on the second floor and one market rate apartment on the third floor. The Denniston Building would be fully renovated, preserving the historically significant elements on the first floor and creating two affordable apartments on the second floor.

This all seemed to make sense. The affordable studio spaces would fit nicely with the nearby concentration of artists’ galleries and studios in the “Arts District”, the need for affordable housing would be addressed, and the historic Denniston building would be saved.

Architects were hired, donations were solicited and the long and sometimes agonizing process of obtaining the necessary approvals from the town and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission was begun. Neighborhood meetings were held. The contents of the Denniston Building were examined and inventoried by the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. Massachusetts’s governor attended a ceremonial groundbreaking, and the fund began to turn its attention to the task of mounting a capital campaign to raise the approximately $5.5 million necessary to build the project.

So what went wrong?

The short answer is “the economy,” although there were, without doubt, other factors that contributed to the demise of Bradley Square. The fund was almost entirely dependent upon the generosity of Islanders and seasonal residents for the revenue needed to finance the various projects and commitments that it had undertaken. With the recession came a sharp drop in charitable contributions to organizations like the fund and to projects like Bradley Square. When it became obvious about one year ago that the fund would not be able to continue to support the project, its board of directors voted to sell the property and, while there has been some interest from private developers, after nine months on the market, the real estate remains unsold.

The Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank (MVSB) holds a mortgage on the property in excess of $750,000. Without a dependable and predictable source of revenue, the fund simply did not have the wherewithal to meet its obligation. The MVSB has been extremely supportive of the fund throughout this process by extending the grace period far beyond the norm. But banks are subject to regulations, and last week the MVSB notified the fund that it had initiated foreclosure proceedings. The Fund was also informed that all of its deposit accounts with the bank had been encumbered and the balances “set aside” to “offset” possible loses to the bank. This was particularly problematic, as substantial portions of those balances were in restricted funds earmarked for certain specific projects and not for use by the fund. Needless to say, the news of these actions by the MVSB is of great concern to the board of directors of the fund.

The board will continue to meet as needed on an emergency basis until a resolution to this crisis can be achieved. It is anticipated that ongoing discussions with the bank will result in a partial release of the restricted funds.

The longer answer to the question posed above is somewhat speculative, as this writer was not party to all of the decisions and events leading up to the current crisis. But it is abundantly clear that fundraising efforts for continuing obligations and multi-year commitments, such as housing, must take the longer view and make provisions for funding that matches the projected needs.

We must have realistic expectations of our ability to secure and hold long-term commitments. This will require a shift in our fundraising strategy, away from the traditional but volatile event-based model and more toward the one-to-one approach. We are in the very competitive business of charitable investments, and collaboration is likely to be the key to our success and survival. We must be able to demonstrate to our donors that we are making the most efficient use of their money. Donor fatigue is certain to be an increasingly significant factor, so we must make the most efficient use of their time as well.

Perhaps the outcome at Bradley Square would have been different if we had, with the clarity of 20/20 hindsight, been able to foresee some of these problems. But I doubt it, because, in spite of the tremendous enthusiasm for the project in some quarters, there was never really a consensus, particularly among those who would be the most affected, the neighbors. They told us that it was too big, too dense and would create too much additional traffic for which there was not enough parking. Perhaps we should have listened more closely to them. There are no good guys or bad guys in the story of Bradley Square, just a lot of concerned people with different ideas about their homes, their neighborhood and their town.

Over the 11 years since its inception, the fund has raised in excess of $14 million, the lion’s share of which was distributed to the Island Housing Trust, in support of its building projects and to the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority, in support of its rental assistance programs. Habitat for Humanity has also been a beneficiary of the fund. Recent events notwithstanding, the mission of the fund remains clear and relevant.

“The Martha’s Vineyard Housing Fund (MVHF) raises money from individuals, businesses, and foundations to provide grants to organizations working to increase the supply of year-round housing options on Martha’s Vineyard.

“The MVHF promotes an integrated approach to housing and land conservation. MVHF advocates for smart growth, the use of existing structures as much as possible, economic development and perpetual affordability through the protection of deed restrictions and other tools of land stewardship.”