Island builder Bill Potter has a plan to tackle the affordable housing crisis

The Martha's Vineyard builder advocates a new approach to add workforce housing, six units at a time.

An architectural rendering of a building that houses six, two-bedroom condos with a proposed price tag of $240,000 each. — Image courtesy of Squash Meadow

Squash Meadow Construction President Bill Potter thinks he could help solve the need for affordable housing, six units at a time. Regulatory assistance and infrastructure support are key.

Mr. Potter has been thinking about the affordable housing problem on the Vineyard for years, in part because the problem affects many of his employees.

“One of my guys lives in a basement apartment with his girlfriend that costs them $1,400 a month,” Mr. Potter told The Times, sitting in his quiet office last Saturday morning. “They make six figures between the two of them, but they’re in a $1,400 basement apartment. That’s typical for our workforce. They can’t buy a house yet, and the year-round rentals are insane. My wife works in real estate; she says she gets calls every hour.”

Mr. Potter said he attacked the problem by working backward — to see what Squash Meadow could build that would fit a mortgage with monthly payments around $1,400.

“It comes out to a $240,000 mortgage,” he said. Checking a mortgage calculator on Saturday morning, Mr. Potter figured the monthly payment would be roughly $1,300 at current rates. “They could own their own piece of the Vineyard for less than they’re paying for a basement apartment,” he said.

Building blocks
Finding a parcel of land that allows multi-unit development is no easy task on Martha’s Vineyard. As most builders will attest, even the simplest construction can require running a gauntlet of local opposition, permitting agencies, and increasingly, wastewater issues. The “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) factor is also a major obstacle.

“I hate to use the word ‘project,’ because some people pounce on that and call it a housing project that doesn’t belong on the Island,” Mr. Potter said. “We don’t want to be the bad guys in the eyes of the Islanders who oppose this type of project. We also don’t have the time to explore solutions to the wastewater issues. We need some type of collaboration with the towns so that the wastewater issue has already been solved before we can start a project like this.”

Early last year, Mr. Potter heard about two 6,000-square-foot parcels on Duke’s County Avenue in Oak Bluffs that were for sale. Since they were in a commercial zone, he could build multi-unit housing, according to town zoning bylaws. Additionally, since the town sewer line runs the length of Dukes County Avenue, wastewater would most likely not be an issue. Mr. Potter did feasibility studies on the property, and figured he could construct a building on each parcel, with six two-bedroom units, 600 square feet each, that would sell for the target price of $240,000.

The momentum for the Dukes County Avenue project slowed last spring, when Mr. Potter had to devote all of his time to building the new Vineyard House. The new Vineyard House campus is tangible proof that Squash Meadow and Mr. Potter can delivery quickly and efficiently — the five modular buildings, including three multi-unit residential homes, all LEED certified — were completed in six months and brought in under budget.

“Squash Meadow has been in business for 15 years. We have our process down,” Mr. Potter said. “I know I could build those [Duke’s County Avenue] homes for that price. I don’t mind reducing my profit margins if I can do some good for the community.”

Mr. Potter said he’s looking to create multi-unit workforce housing for the Island as a whole, not just for his employees, and that he wants to help fill the void as a private developer as well as in collaboration with the Island towns. “If it’s done with the town, the town can decide how the homes are sold,” he said. “Does this solve the housing crisis? No. But I think this model can go a long way in creating housing for our labor force. Every time we build six units, that’s six new homeowners, and more rentals that open up.”

Creative financing

Mr. Potter acknowledged that the down payment on a $240,000 mortgage can be a barrier to ownership for a fully employed Islander. But he said he’s optimistic that local banks will be open to creative financing.
“We’re committed to working on ways to address this issue on Martha’s Vineyard,” David Brennan, senior vice president of residential lending at Cape Cod Five, told The Times on Monday. “We do have programs that require as little as three to five percent down. Some require mortgage insurance. Some come with unemployment insurances. We know part of the challenge is seasonality of employment, and we know many Islanders have to work two or three jobs. We’re always looking to meet the demand with solutions that are a little bit out of the ordinary.”