Experts examine Martha’s Vineyard affordable housing crisis

The panel discussion focused on the need for new tactics and Island-wide cooperation.

Morgan Woods in Edgartown is an example of large scale rental development on Island. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

Although the first blush of spring beckoned outside, a standing-room crowd still filled the Tisbury Senior Center on Saturday morning to listen to experts and to exchange ideas about creating more affordable housing for year-round Martha’s Vineyard residents.

The need for Island-wide cooperation, larger-scale development, zoning changes, and innovative funding were repeated themes during the event, organized by the Island Housing Trust (IHT).

Builder John Abrams, president of South Mountain Co., and advisory member of the IHT, moderated the morning’s discussion. “We have made incredible progress, far more progress than many communities that I know about with the same issues, but only a drip, drip, drip, of small solutions,” he said. “We’ve never been able to turn the faucet to get a steady flow of true solutions to solve the crisis that we have.”

Island unity crucial

Susan Connelly, director of community housing initiatives for the Massachusetts housing partnership, said that the Island stands a better chance of funding if the towns work together. “We need you guys to work together so we know the public money is going as far as it can,” she said. Ms. Connelly said that financial disparities between the six towns needn’t be a roadblock to inter-Island cooperation: “It’s not just about money. It’s also about political will, showing cooperation, and putting aside individual agendas.”

Philippe Jordi, executive director of IHT, said that in the past year, IHT had created more affordable housing than in any previous year, and pointed to the six recently renovated Village Court apartments in Vineyard Haven, renovated under the guidance of The Resource Inc. (TRI), as an example of Island-wide cooperation. Mr. Jordi said a crucial funding element of the Village Court apartments was Community Preservation Act (CPA) funding from four different towns — Chilmark, Tisbury, West Tisbury, and Edgartown.

Mr. Abrams said the recent creation of the all-Island planning board, spearheaded by IHT treasurer Dan Seidman, Tisbury planning board co-chairman, was another positive step in inter-town cooperation.

Zoning changes needed

Mr. Jordi said zoning changes enacted by the town of West Tisbury were key to creating the cottage apartments at Sepiessa Point, which added three additional units last year.

Squash Meadow Construction president Bill Potter said he was hamstrung by current zoning bylaws when he attempted to create affordable housing for his own employees in Oak Bluffs. “Last year my company looked into commercial land for employee housing,” he said. Multi-unit housing is restricted to commercially zoned land in all six towns. “I have employees paying $1,200 month for a garage apartment. That converts to a $240,000 mortgage for condos we could build. The problem was finding a piece of land.”

Ms. Connelly said other rural communities in the state face with the same paradox that exists on the Vineyard — although smaller-scale development may appeal, aesthetically and financially, when the state or federal government looks to evaluate affordable projects for stable, long-term funding, they look at the economy of scale. “They want to have the greatest impact for the greatest number of people, and that goal is often in conflict with how housing can be developed in rural areas,” she said. “The biggest source of public financing that creates a more stable subsidized housing is low-income housing tax credits. You have to do 30 to 40 units to make that project work financially.”

Ms. Connelly cited Province Landing in Provincetown, 50 mixed-income units on 2.5 acres, as a successful example. Province Landing was developed by The Community Builders, Inc. (TCB), the same company that developed Edgartown’s Morgan Woods, the largest mixed-income rental housing development on the Island.
“Morgan Woods is our biggest success,” Edgartown planning board and Martha’s Vineyard Commission member Christina Brown said. “It was audacious and a lot naive, but it worked. The town filed the application to increase it from eight to 60 units, purchased the land in cooperation with the Land Bank, then leased land to Community Builders,” Ms. Brown said. “It’s been open eight years, and it’s working. It houses people age 6 months to 75 years old. Ninety percent are employed with Island jobs — plumbers, bus drivers, CPAs, bank employees, chefs, hotel housekeepers, Steamship employees, and EMTs. The bad news is there are over 200 screened, eligible Islanders on the waiting list.”

Ms. Brown also expressed concern about available land for future development. “We’re not getting as many buildable lots as we used to,” she said. “We need more land. The town should go out and get land now and assign it to affordable housing right away.”

Tapping the private sector

Julie Anne McNary, executive director of the Permanent Endowment Fund for Martha’s Vineyard and a recent transplant from the Boston area, said social impact bonds are a way of tapping into the prodigious wealth that has a vested interest in the Island. Ms. McNary in said her tenure with Laurene Jobs, Steve Jobs’ widow, she gained a lot of experience interacting with millionaires and billionaires. She said that in addition to appealing to donors on an emotional level, a businesslike approach is also key.

“With the amount of wealth that’s here, there’s extraordinary potential,” she said. “I know hedge fund people, they want to see a demonstrative impact. They want to feel good, and get also that feeling when they do a good deal.”

Ms. McNary said social impact bonds and impact investment bonds, a socially conscious real estate investment trust (REIT), provide potential investors with that opportunity. “You say, ‘Give us $25 million collectively, we follow your benchmarks, you set the bars. When we get there, the proceeds aren’t taken back, they’re reinvested.’”

Ms. Connelly endorsed the social impact bonds. “I think it could work,” she said. “It reminds me of the community investment tax credit.”

Ms. McNary also said the town-centric tradition of the Island is a challenge to raising philanthropic capital. “Normally, social impact bonds bear down on one community,” she said. “The six-town thing can be confusing.”

Christine Flynn from the Martha’s Vineyard Commission said that wastewater needed to be factored into the funding equation. “Water quality here is the holy grail,” she said. “We have to look at infrastructure costs. Cape Cod is looking at at half a billion dollars to address their wastewater issue. We’ve done a much better job, but towns are looking at hundreds of millions in costs.”

Ms. McNary suggested that with the right approach, the wastewater cost needn’t be prohibitive for investors if they’re provided with proper analysis and data. “There’s a lot of reasons rich people get rich,” she said. “Some of them are incredibly smart investors. If you analyze wastewater costs, bundle it into the deal, it can get done.”

Rick Presbury, director of housing assistance in Hyannis and veteran of the affordable housing war on the Cape and Islands, said that solving this Island problem also requires Islanders getting off the Island. “People in this room have to go up to Boston, and tell them this is what is happening, and this is what we want to do about it,” he said.

Mr. Abrams added Islanders also have to get off the couch. “It’s up to Islanders to put pressure on government at the local level,” he said. “You have to participate if you want your voices to be heard.”