Economics underpins it all

In January, one year ago, Philippe Jordi, executive director of the Island Housing Trust, and David Vigneault, executive director Dukes County Regional Housing Authority (DCRHA), told an MVTimes writer that the Vineyard’s complicated affordable housing problem had changed.

“The problem is not a lack of demand for housing,” writer Jack Shea explained, “but the reduced earning capacity and debt loads that lead to the inability of residents to pay the rent or to qualify for a mortgage to buy a house. They [Mr. Jordi and Mr. Vigneault] cite three years of economic grinding that has worn away incomes and raised credit card and other debt levels for many working Islanders.”

“More affordable housing has been created here in the past decade than has ever existed here, but people are struggling,” Mr. Jordi explained. “Their margins are gone. The people we’re seeing work hard, have multiple jobs. They are raising their kids here and looking to retire here. The stereotype profile simply doesn’t exist.”

This anomalous community, geographically segregated from mainstream America, is better educated than the Massachusetts population as a whole — 93 percent of us have at least a high school diploma, 43 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher — but struggling economically nevertheless. Island per capita income is lower than it is in the state as a whole, but household income is higher than in the rest of the state. Poverty — all this data is from the U.S. Census — is no worse, but no better than it is in Massachusetts as a whole. Non-farm employment in Dukes County has declined nearly four percent between 2000 and 2010.

A bit of better news may be that retail sales per capita in Dukes County is significantly higher than it is for Massachusetts as a whole, which suggests that being in business here can be a good thing, for business owners and for their employees. And, it’s heartening to see that homeownership is at 82 percent on the Island, as against just 64 percent statewide. That suggests that there is an asset base here to buttress both employers and employees.

In general the numbers support the observations made by the two housing specialists, but they also support the view that, as accomplished as we are at conserving land and regulating development in this unusual, desirable, but narrowly focused community, we are deficient in planning for and stimulating business and economic growth. And, sadly, constrained economic growth aggravates problems like housing affordability, and the human difficulties that accompany such problems, as well as conservation and preservation ambitions. A growing economy underpins improvement for all.

That’s why it is heartening to find Janet Hefler’s survey of several Island businesses that have moved, expanded, and taken fresh risks to improve their business prospects. Smart, nimble business owners make decisions they think will lead to improved financial performance, and their successes will lead to economic improvements whose benefits will accrue to all of us.

For Edgartown Hardware owners John and Pat Montes and Vineyard Electronics owners Linda and Don Sibley, relocating their long-established stores fulfilled a goal to expand their businesses. For Bunch of Grapes bookstore owner Dawn Braasch and Island Entertainment owner Anne Evasick, moving resulted in downsizing. And for Midnight Farm owner Tamara Weiss, the loss of a lease meant finding a new space, and quickly.

“Change is a scary thing, but it just turned out to be for the best,” Ms. Weiss said. “I think we’re all really happy here. My staff is happy here, I’m happy here, and it seems like my customers really are happy here, and that’s most important to me. So it was just a great transition, and we’re really looking forward to the spring and summer season to see if it will be worth it, after all of that.”

Hats off and best wishes to the ambitious and the risk takers.