Private affordable housing project takes shape in West Tisbury

Jim Feiner stands next to the foundation for the first of two new affordable houses for a project he financed in West Tisbury. — Photo courtesy of Jim Feiner

As a 10-year member and current chairman of Chilmark’s housing committee and a real estate broker for 22 years, Jim Feiner is attuned to the Island’s need for affordable housing. With that in mind, in 2005 he bought a three-acre property on Old Mill Road off Dr. Fisher Road in West Tisbury with his friend Niki Patton.

Their goal was to build some affordable houses for year-round Islanders.

Ms. Patton hoped to be one of them. “She didn’t have enough money to be able to afford a market rate house, but she had too much to be able to qualify for affordable housing,” Mr. Feiner explained.

Although he saw himself as a pioneer, what Mr. Feiner couldn’t foresee was that it would take seven years for the private affordable housing project to make its way through the permitting maze and weather the disappearance of anticipated subsidies and the arrival and persistence of a bad economy.

Finally, the project is underway.

“I started construction on two houses, one of them is an affordable one, and we already have buyers for it,” Mr. Feiner said in a recent phone conversation with The Times.

Since it is a private project and not subsidized with town funds, the affordable houses can be sold to income-qualified buyers without going through a town lottery process. Mr. Feiner said the affordable houses would be priced at $350,000, which is well under the threshold price of $400,000 for a family of four making 140 percent of Dukes County’s median average income.

“We have a market rate house under construction, also, which I have not put on the market yet,” Mr. Feiner said. “I am basically financing those two structures, and then when one of them sells, we can begin to start the construction on the third house, another affordable one, which we already have some significant interest in.”

He expects the first two houses to be done by next March. “It’s my hope that we will be able to secure financing to begin the third one so that it can be done before summer,” Mr. Feiner said. “It will give someone else who has to do the seasonal shuffle an opportunity not to.”

Mr. Feiner said he used money he inherited when his mother died to purchase the property seven years ago, as a way to do something good for the community in memory of her benevolent nature. He said he could envision families living there much like his own, which includes his son, Elijah, age 9, and his wife, Deb, a literacy coordinator at the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School.

“Also, being involved in affordable housing, I thought this was a great opportunity to create a positive situation, that if it could be done, would be something we could learn from and that maybe other people could do with similar projects in the future,” he said.

A question of zoning

When Mr. Feiner and Ms. Patton first started their project, West Tisbury officials informed him the town had recently created a zoning bylaw to encourage affordable housing efforts.

“I thought it was radical, from a Chilmark standpoint,” Mr. Feiner said. “It allows the creation of smaller parcels of land, provided that two-third or more are deed restricted for perpetually affordable homes. Basically it created sub-standard zoning that could be used for something good.”

As it turned out, the bylaw Mr. Feiner thought would be friendly to his project was not so much. “Originally, we had planned to build four houses on three acres,” he explained. “They said, sure, you can do multiple families; sure, you can have 12 bedrooms; but what they didn’t say at that time was you could only have one house per acre.”

That put Mr. Feiner back at square one.

“It took us almost four years to go through the boards and really get a clear understanding that we could only have three houses,” he said. “There was a point where the town wanted to create a fixed one-acre position on affordable housing, which a lot of people felt was wrong, and they worked hard to encourage the town not to take that stand. An acre is an awful lot of land.”

Economic impact

The change in the project from four houses to three was significant because it increased the land cost basis for each house, Mr. Feiner said. At the same time, subsidies he hoped to get to reduce that cost were no longer available from the Island Affordable Housing Fund (IAHF), which had run into financial difficulties due to the poor economy.

So now it’s not a question of whether the project is going to lose money, but rather how much, Mr. Feiner said.

“In reality, each of the affordable houses is going to lose in excess of $35,000,” he said. “So it’s my hope that the market rate house, if it doesn’t make back the $70,000, will at least come close.

“And I’m fine with that, because the reality is, even when we bought this, it was the cheapest three-acre property on the market,” Mr. Feiner explained. “And since then, the market contracted by 35 percent. So we paid $485,000 for the land, and it’s probably worth $350,000, as a single buildable parcel. It’s been a learning experience.”

Glacial impact

The project also encountered another obstacle that dated back to the Ice Age. Mr. Feiner said at one point, Andrew Woodruff, a West Tisbury representative on the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC), decided to drop by and look at the property, and declared that it included a frost bottom.

Frost bottoms, which are geological depressions that were scooped out by retreating glaciers, may provide habitat to certain types of rare moth species and plants, Mr. Feiner said. Rather than go through an involved process to confirm the presence of a frost bottom, he and Ms. Patton agreed to a voluntary restriction on development on two-thirds of the three acres in cooperation with the state’s Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program.

“So through the use of our engineering company, Scofield, Barbini and Hoehn, we located and created the three house sites around what might primarily be the frost bottom area and left that in a protected state,” Mr. Feiner said.

The project did not require review by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, which is triggered by a development of 10 or more dwelling units.

Finding a builder

Construction proved to be the next hurdle. Mr. Feiner said he first attempted to get bids from a number of different local contractors, but found stick-built construction costs were too high.

“We also tried to do the project a couple of years ago with modular homes,” Mr. Feiner said. “But we couldn’t get a modular in because the road was too narrow, and the abutters had concerns about the impact of this project on other properties on the road.”

Fortunately, when the economy recently improved somewhat and interest rates dropped, it seemed the project could move forward. Mr. Feiner said he was very fortunate that Farley Pedler stepped up to the plate and proved to be the right contractor for the job.

“Farley has proven to be a godsend because we needed someone who could appreciate our plight and be willing to work with us to tailor the situation to get the job done,” he said. “Now that we’re building three houses, we’ve got subcontractors who understand that it’s only with them giving us extremely competitive bids with a very low profit potential that we are able to do this project. And Farley has been very good about getting people that understand that.”

Mr. Feiner said the Island community has also shown its support. “We’ve opened the door to some help from contractors who have surpluses of materials in their garages and I talked to a couple of people who have offered to donate some nice doors or some windows or stuff that came out of high-end houses that were not going to be used,” he said. “It all helps.”

A model for other projects?

Mr. Feiner has also received advice and support from Philippe Jordi, executive director of Island Housing Trust (IHT), a non-profit organization that creates and sustains permanently affordable housing.

“It’s exciting, Mr. Jordi said in a phone conversation with The Times yesterday. “We certainly want those kind of bylaws like West Tisbury has to do what was intended, to create more year-round affordable housing that is very much needed. The fact you can have people in the private sector doing these projects, that’s great.”

Mr. Jordi said IHT will be looking at partnering with Mr. Feiner on land restrictions and ground leases for the future homebuyers. “It’s an issue I’ll bring to my board this month,” he said. “We’ve been trying to partner with as many people and organizations as possible to make these projects work, whether it’s a private developer or a town or an organization.”

Any addition to the Island’s affordable housing inventory is a plus, Mr. Jordi said.

Mr. Feiner said he still believes his project could prove a model for others, but a lot depends on the circumstances and the economy.

Lessons from Cozy Hearth

Mr. Feiner appears to have succeeded where others did not, most notably Cozy Hearth.

In 2002, businessman Bill Bennett of Chilmark and some of his employees, friends, and family members joined forces and purchased 11 acres zoned for 3-acre lots off Watcha Path Road in Edgartown in an effort to provide affordable housing.

The development, named Cozy Hearth, proposed to subdivide the property into one-acre lots through a comprehensive permit under Chapter 40B, a state statute to encourage affordable housing by helping developers bypass local zoning restrictions.

Three houses were to be awarded for affordable housing through a lottery. The rest were to be owned by Cozy Hearth members, with five houses qualifying as affordable, and the remaining three sold at market rate. Following an extensive review by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, in March 2006, the Edgartown Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) voted against the 11-house subdivision and approved only nine houses.

Cozy Hearth appealed the Edgartown ZBA’s decision in June 2006 to the Massachusetts Housing Appeals Committee (HAC). On April 14, 2008, the HAC agreed that the elimination of two houses would make the project uneconomic and that several conditions imposed by the ZBA were beyond the scope of health and safety issues. The HAC decision was upheld on appeal. When the Edgartown ZBA filed notice of a further appeal Mr. Bennett said he could no longer afford the battle and Cozy Hearth was done.