Martha’s Vineyard housing shortage reaches critical mass

Although state and national economies continue to rebound, more and more Islanders struggle to find housing.

From left: DCRHA administrator Terri Keech, executive director David Vigneault, and administrative coordinator Barbara Hoffman work on the front lines of the housing dilemma. — Photo by Michael Cummo

This is the first article in a series about the critical shortage of affordable housing on Martha’s Vineyard and its effects on the community.

While the thought of summer gives some Islanders solace during the days of single-digit temperatures and double-digit snowfalls, it also brings trepidation to many. Renters with winter leases and homeowners who depend on summer rental income are scrambling for summer shelter, and competition is fierce. According to people who work on the front lines, the demand, and the scarcity of options, is unprecedented.

“The first level of affordability here is a year-round lease, which is virtually nonexistent right now,” David Vigneault, executive director of the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority (DCRHA), told The Times. “There was virtually nothing this fall for year-round rentals.”

The DCRHA serves as the rental property manager for the Island Housing Trust, and is charged with increasing year-round housing opportunities for moderate-income residents. Island residents making less than 80 percent of Area Median Income (AMI) — $63,900 for a family of four in Dukes County — are eligible for assistance. The DCRHA owns or manages 79 apartments on 12 properties in five Island towns. There are currently 235 individuals and families on the waiting list for year-round housing and rental assistance.

According to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) 2013 housing needs assessment, 2,245 households, about 30 percent of the Island, may qualify for housing assistance.

Mr. Vigneault thinks the severity of the current housing shortage has its roots, in part, in the financial crisis of 2008. “People drained savings and defaulted on credit obligations while their incomes, which had been relatively stagnant, dropped significantly,” he said. “When the economy tightened, all of a sudden we had more year-round rentals, ironically just when Islanders couldn’t take advantage of them.”

Mr. Vigneault said the landscape changed as the economy improved, and property owners who were previously satisfied with the steady income from one renter saw greater profit with weekly rentals. “As a result, quite a few more folks were displaced from year-round housing that they might have had for five or six years,” he said. “It’s a practical conundrum. Wall Street is doing well. That means on the Island, people get a little more work and a little more income. That also means seasonal folks can spend more time here, and that means year-rounders have less housing. These factors have built to a critical point.”

While increased weekly rental income can be good for Island homeowners who do the “Island shuffle,” moving from winter to summer quarters, they are running out of places to go. “There was always a percentage of people that shuffled,” Mr. Vigneault said. “Years ago, you could find decent summer rentals, or live in a teepee if you wanted to, but it was a choice. There might have been some people camping in the state forest last summer by choice. But a lot of them weren’t. Some people were still there when the snow started to fall.”

Homeless professionals
“The idea of homelessness in an urban area isn’t the same here,” Mr. Vigneault said. “On the Island, it can mean a double-income family and no housing after June 1. Being without housing here is really significant, all up and down our income spectrum. I just spent an hour and a half on the phone with the assistant superintendent of schools, who told me there are a number of teachers who are panicked because they don’t have a place to live as of May 31. The additional snow days put them into the last week of June. That’s the better part of a month without housing.”

The 2013 MVC housing needs assessment calculated the “affordability gap” — the difference between what a household earning the median income can afford and the median house price — at $213,500.

Statewide, the Vineyard affordability gap was second only to Nantucket, which had an affordability chasm of $646,000. Currently the Nantucket Housing Authority, which provides low-income rentals, has a waiting list of over eight years. Housing Nantucket, the DCRHA equivalent geared to moderate-income residents,has 30 rental units, and some applicants have been on the waiting list for more than four years. Angst over affordable housing on Nantucket is so acute, it was cited in a Feb. 1 article in the Boston Globe as a contributing factor to the recent rash of suicides — seven middle-aged Nantucketers have committed suicide since October.

“The affordable housing shortage is the most critical since I started working here in 2007,” Housing Nantucket Executive Director Anne Kuszpa told The Times. “I think substance abuse probably plays a big role in the suicides, but there’s no question the anxiety level over housing is the highest I’ve seen it. There’s nothing out there. I don’t see any of our units opening up any time soon.”

Long-standing issue
The dearth of year-round rental housing is not a new issue on the Vineyard. The 2001 Housing Needs Assessment, done under the auspices of the MVC, stated, “While winter rentals may be more affordable, they render many households virtually homeless during the summer, estimated to involve approximately 23 percent of renters who have lived on the Island for at least five years.” The survey illuminated some of the extreme hardships working people endured to live here — a two-income family making $90,000 moving 18 times in 11 years; people living in cars, or renting cots in a basement with no running water for $700 a month.

The survey helped spark the creation of the DCRHA to give struggling Islanders a roof over their heads while other options, ownership or renting, were worked out. “That’s how it was imagined in 2001, and it has had some good success,” Mr. Vigneault said.

Morgan Woods, a 60-unit, mixed-income housing complex in Edgartown, and the largest mixed-income housing development on Martha’s Vineyard, was considered such a success when it opened in 2007. But according to property manager Maria Lopez, turnover is rare, and the number of applicants, and their level of desperation, has soared since she began working there a year and a half ago.

“When I first started, I’d see two, three people a week,” Ms. Lopez told The Times. “Now I have a nonstop stream of people. I see desperate families — some are living out of their cars. One applicant said she was being evicted because she asked the landlord for help with the mold that was making her baby sick. We have 300 people on the wait list. It’s very frustrating not to be able to help.”

Inventory shortage
In its first five years, the DCRHA was funded by private donations. Since 2006, operations have been funded entirely by the six Island towns with money from Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds. Mr. Vigneault lauded Island voters for their support of the DCRHA. “They also put half a million dollars into rental assistance every year, which is pretty darn wonderful,” he said. “The problem is we have a lot of money on the table that’s not being used, because we can’t get the landlords right now. We get this great town support, but for the past two years I’ve had to give money back to four towns because they don’t have the landlords. We advertise for landlords and get no response. We have an abundance of housing here. None of it is for rent year-round.”

Mr. Vigneault said the DCRHA receives a steady stream of calls for help from people it cannot assist. “About half of the households that apply do not have the income that they need to rent the apartment,” he said. Applicants must be able to pay a minimum of 50 percent of the rent, although some exceptions are made for seniors and the disabled. “There are folks who are really trying, and have significant need, and we have to say ‘We’re sorry, we can’t do it.’ This is very unsatisfying for us.”

Few options
Heather Goodwin is a third-generation Islander in such a plight. Ms. Goodwin is a single mother with a son in ninth grade at MVRHS, and for the past four years she’s been physically unable to work. She currently shares a basement apartment with two roommates and her son. Her share of the rent is $750 per month.

“I’m glad to have a roof over my head, but I don’t know how much longer I can stay,” she told The Times. “I have no idea how I’m going to pay the rent next month.” Ms. Goodwin, formerly a lab technician and dog groomer, said she has letters from four doctors confirming she’s physically unable to work, but her claim was denied by the Social Security Administration. She’s currently appealing the decision. In the meantime, other than child support, she has no steady income.

“I’m stuck in this netherworld of not being able to work, but not on disability as of yet,” she said. “I don’t want to be a barnacle, but shouldn’t a person like me be a priority to find housing for, instead of being thrown out onto the streets? It’s not just me. A lot of people are struggling. There are hard-working tradesmen that are having trouble. There’s going to be an implosion here. There’s not going to be anyone around to do the work that the rich people want done.”

Ms. Goodwin said she went to Mr. Vigneault on several occasions for help. “He basically told me I didn’t make enough money,” she said. “He said there was a shelter in Hyannis. That’s not helpful.”

No good answers
“We’re trying to figure out a practical and humane response to our own needs, and frankly that’s hard for some folks to get their heads around, and it becomes personal,” Mr. Vigneault said. “I get those calls, ‘Why aren’t you helping so-and-so?’ And you say, because there’s no income. There are dozens of situations — they can be single parents, people with medical issues, or seasonally employed — that we are not equipped to assist. The [DCRHA] was imagined as a way to sustain working people on the Island. It was not imagined as a low- or no-income program.”

Mr. Vigneault said Section 8 funds for low- or no-income housing from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) were gutted during the Bush administration, and today the demand far outstrips supply. “The last time we checked with a state office about Section 8 applications, there was a 12- to 14-year wait,” he said. “Before the Department of Transitional Assistance money went away [in 2008], we used to have a couple of apartments that were very quietly used by dozens of families for six months to a year, on their way to more permanent solutions,” Mr. Vigneault said. “Some went to greener pastures off-Island, and some of those people remain in our community today. That was before the funding was shut off.”

“We have a really hard time for some reason addressing the fact that the market is not up to the practical task of sustaining the people who we need to sustain our community,” Mr. Vigneault said. “We put a lot of emphasis on ownership. Ownership is nice, but rental is what we need. It’s what we need to stabilize the workforce, the families trying to keep this community what it is. There are folks who say, ‘I got off the boat, I roughed it for a while; if they don’t like it they can get back on the boat.’ Can some folks up and leave? Absolutely, and many have. The MVC assessment shows a significant drop in the 20- to 30-year-old population. It’s harder and harder for young people to stay here or to move here and make a go of it.”
“Economically and morally, we have the opportunity to do more than what we’re doing,” Mr. Vigneault said. “Our community is a very wealthy one, and not just in cash, and not just in moderately low taxes, but very rich in talented people with a lot of expertise. It’s incomprehensible to me that our community can’t address this problem. I hate to think it will take someone dying under a tarp in the state forest for us to actually get serious about this.”