Housing affordability is only one of the Island’s issues


Lately, the Martha’s Vineyard Housing Needs Assessment Study Committee — don’t worry, there’s no acronym quiz later — has been batting around an early draft of the preliminary report prepared by their consultant, Karen Sonnarborg. It’s a policy wonk’s dream, packed with data that lets you drill down as deeply as you like into the dynamics of the housing problem on the Island today.

Consider, for example, the storied Affordability Gap — the financial chasm between the cost of the home a family earning a median income can afford, and the actual median cost of an Island house on the market today.

Ms. Sonnarborg crunched a lot of numbers to develop what first appears as Table 3 in the early draft that’s circulating now. The report applies assumptions which only reduce the size of the affordability gap — for example, that buyers can secure 30-year mortgages at 5 percent and have cash on hand to pay 20 percent of a home’s price up front. (Surely you’ve a spare $80,000 rattling around in your checking account – don’t you?)

Even with these optimistic assumptions, the affordability gap for home buyers across Martha’s Vineyard averages $213,500. But that county-wide number conceals a wealth of interesting detail.

When you look at individual Island towns (see the graphic, please), a richer picture emerges. In Oak Bluffs, the difference between what a family at median income can afford and the median cost of a home is $80,000. In Chilmark, it’s $426,000. On this tiny Island, that’s a remarkable range. A median-income Chilmark family shopping for a home today actually faces no affordability gap — if they’re willing to buy a few miles away in Oak Bluffs.

The housing study reports that the market for single-family homes peaked on Martha’s Vineyard at a median price of about $700,000, in 2007. With the recession and the bursting of the national housing bubble, that median price fell to a low of $512,000 in 2011, and had climbed back to $535,000 by September of this past year.

So the affordability gap shrank for a few years, then went right back to growing. If you’re a working family on Martha’s Vineyard waiting for this home market to come back to you, you’re waiting for a recession a lot worse than the one we’ve just experienced.

But to return to this early draft of the study due out in April: Because the dynamics of housing are inextricable from the people living in it, we should expect a healthy dose of demographics that hold a mirror up to this community. The report finds, for example, that Martha’s Vineyard is hemorrhaging people in the prime of their working, family-raising years. In 1990, people from ages 25 to 44 made up 36.6 percent of the Island population. By 2010, that fraction had fallen to 24.4 percent.

Equally alarming is the evidence that the Island’s success as a seasonal resort has produced an economy in which low-paying, service-industry jobs predominate. In 1990, 22 percent of all working people on the Vineyard were employed in this bottom tier of the labor market; in 2010 that fraction had nearly doubled, to 43 percent.

Comparing this draft report to Preserving Community, the landmark 2001 study of the Island housing crisis that spawned a decade of creative efforts, one dramatic contrast is its emphasis on the need for rental housing. The 2001 report called for a 50-50 mix of ownership and rental opportunities in the Island’s housing initiatives; the early draft of the 2013 report suggests that 80 percent rental and 20 percent ownership is a healthier balance.

But what strikes me as most notable is the new study’s frankness in addressing issues that are something of a hot potato for our public leaders: poverty and homelessness on Martha’s Vineyard.

The cliché of pointing out that affordable housing is for our Island school teachers, nurses, and police has been useful, but it glosses over segments of our population that this new study seems poised to address head-on. Declares the early draft: “The number of individuals and families in poverty almost doubled between 1990 and 2010 and about tripled in the case of those 65 years of age or older.”

I know it’s an uncomfortable subject, but this is news we need to hear and to be talking about as a community, not just in the context of a conversation about housing but in broader ways as well. I hope that when the (acronym alert) MVHNASC presents its final report, this language or something like it doesn’t wind up on the cutting-room floor.