Privately financed affordable housing project crosses the finish line

The three-house project in West Tisbury took nine years to complete and provided plenty of difficult lessons along the way.

One of three energy efficient homes, all of a similar style, Jim Feiner built on Dr. Fisher Road in West Tisbury as part of private effort to generate affordable housing. — Photo by Tony Omer

In 2005, James Feiner of Chilmark and Niki Patton of West Tisbury set out to do their part to address the need for affordable housing on Martha’s Vineyard. Nine years later, the three new houses on Dr. Fisher Road in West Tisbury, one sold at market rate and the other two priced below market rate, are occupied by families grateful for their new homes.

The road to completion included town board meetings, financial setbacks and opposition from abutters. And when all was said and done the project  off of Old County Road just east of the West Tisbury School resulted in financial losses for the two partners, losses that both agree might have been averted if they had begun the project with the hard-earned knowledge they possess now.

In spite of the loss, Mr. Feiner, a principal of Feiner Real Estate and by his own admission an affordable housing advocate, said he would consider other similar projects in the future. “I could not be happier,“ he said, “we have created a mixed-use development that serves local people with varying ages and needs. The kids will have a two-minute walk on a path to the West Tisbury School.”

Mr. Feiner bought the three-acre property at 30 Dr. Fisher Road with partner and friend Ms. Patton at the height of the real estate market price boom in 2005 in with the hope of building some affordable housing for year-round Islanders, he said.

“I’ve made a lot of money selling real estate that could have been affordable housing,” he told The Times in a phone conversation. “I wanted to be socially responsible and help replenish the market. I look at it like replanting trees.”

Mr. Feiner said he and Ms. Patton saw great promise in a town bylaw designed to promote affordable housing projects that allowed for the creation of multiple houses on a single parcel of land provided two thirds or more were deed restricted for perpetual affordable homes.

There were difficult financial issues to overcome from the beginning, including a lack of expected funding and a reduction in the number of houses they would be allowed to build on the land.

Economic hurdles

Mr. Feiner and Ms. Patton had expected to get help to purchase the three acres of land from the non-profit Island Affordable Housing Fund, a nonprofit designed to assist affordable housing projects, but the fund was having its own financial difficulties. It has since suspended operations.

At the time, Mr. Feiner said real estate prices looked like they would never come down, but the lengthy process of learning to navigate the regulatory labyrinth coincided with a decline in the Island real estate market.

“It took almost four years to get through the boards and get the plan approved,” he said.

They bought the three-acre lot for $525,000. It was worth considerably less a few years later, he said.

“In order to make the project work financially we needed to build four houses on the lot,” Mr. Feiner said. “We learned after the land purchase that the zoning board would only allow three houses, a house per acre and the conservation commission wanted us to protect an ecologically fragile frost bottom on the land.”

To save money they looked into building modular houses. “But we couldn’t build modular because the road was too narrow,” he said, “and stick-built construction costs were too high.”

The land lay vacant until the economy began to improve. When interest rates dropped precipitously, the tide finally turned, Mr. Feiner said. Construction began when a young local contractor, Farley Peddler, who had built affordable houses for others, stepped up with affordable plans and a willingness to work within the project’s restricted budget.

Help along the way

Philippe Jordi, executive director the Island Housing Trust (IHT), an Island non-profit affordable housing group helped shepherd the project along in its later stages. “Philippe was by our side at all the meetings with the boards, and [he] had all the answers,” Mr. Feiner said.

Ms. Patton, who invested money in the project from a small savings, hoped to help finance the project and end up with one of the affordable homes. “I didn’t get a house and I lost a sizable portion of my investment,” she said. By 2011 she was unable to continue funding the project but continued her involvement.

“If we knew then what we know now this project might have turned out differently,” Ms. Patton said. “From what we learned we would have approached some of the issues in different ways. I think we went into this with too much confidence. I would have asked more questions and sussed out more support from the conservation commission and the zoning board before the purchase. I would have been more humble and transparent.”

Affordable housing nonprofits like IHT, Habitat MV, and the Dukes County Housing Authority can benefit from tax breaks, land donations and support from town community preservation funds, Mr. Jordi said. It can be more difficult but it is not impossible for private investors who attempt to build affordable housing without the benefits enjoyed by nonprofits, he said.

Cozy Hearth

Several years before the Feiner-Patton project began, Island electrical contractor Bill Bennett pooled resources with employees, friends, and family members to purchase an 11-acre parcel on Watcha Road near the Edgartown-West Tisbury Road in Edgartown with plans to build an 11-house affordable housing subdivision. Headed by Mr. Bennett, the Cozy Hearth Corporation (CHC), setup as a non-profit corporation, gave up when the project became too costly following a protracted regulatory process that began with the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and ended in a legal battle with the Edgartown Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA). Although Mr. Bennett and CHC won an appeal to have the ZBA’s decision overturned in court, they gave up in 2009 after nearly three years of legal wrangling.

Mr. Bennett has since installed two solar arrays, each capable producting 250,000 watts annually, on the land. Mr. Bennett said the abutters did not oppose the solar project.