Chilmark affordable housing model favors low density, ownership

Against a backdrop of urgent calls for increased density and rentals, Chilmark favors one-acre lots and houses built from the ground up.

A house almost up on one of the affordable housing lots at Nab’s Corner. — Photo by Sam Moore

A year ago this week, four fortunate Chilmark residents and their families won a housing lottery which gave each of them the opportunity to build a home on one of four one-acre “affordable” lots at Nab’s Corner, just off South Road.

The four lots were the culmination of 12 years of reconnoitering, negotiating, renegotiating, and legal action by a small group of town officials, Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank officials, and attorneys for the town and private landowners.

At the end of the day, two teachers, an artist, a firefighter/carpenter, a commercial fisherman, and a dance teacher/choreographer were able to build in Chilmark. All of the lottery winners had “preferred” status, based on having lived or worked in Chilmark for a minimum of five years. Each homeowner was required to sign a 99-year ground lease designed to ensure the permanent affordability of the property. Any future sale must meet affordable housing program guidelines.

Chilmark selectman Warren Doty told The Times on Tuesday that Nab’s Corner was a bittersweet victory. “It was great to say yes to four deserving people, but it also was hard to say no to the 10 other qualified applicants,” he said. “Especially since some of them are town employees.”

As of this week, one house is near completion, two are in the foundation stage, and one has yet to break ground.

“The roads are in, the wells are in, the utilities are in, septic systems are approved by the board of health, and they’re off to the races,” Chilmark conservation agent Chuck Hodgkinson told The Times. “It’s a pretty simple thing. I think we’re starting to get the hang of it.”

While Nab’s Corner represents a hard-won victory for affordable housing advocates, it also underscores the minimal impact homesite lotteries have on the current demand, particularly in a town with some of the highest property values in the state.

David Vigneault, executive director of the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority (DCRHA), believes that while they are well-intended, homesite lotteries are outdated, and take a disproportionate amount of time, money, and effort in light of the small number of homes that are created.

“Resident homesites originated in the ’70s, when people could build low-cost homes,” Mr. Vigneault told The Times. “The ‘you build it’ model usually meant getting help from friends who are carpenters or electricians. Today it’s a lot more expensive to build a house, and the skilled tradesmen are focused on the million-dollar homes. A homesite lottery can also create a scenario where a lottery winner who can pay $25,000 for an affordable lot may not have the resources to build on it.”

Mr. Vigneault said the homesite process is also encumbered because lottery winners begin with no building plans or cost estimates, which can make obtaining financing more difficult. “Then you have to deal with the varied opinions of what constitutes appropriate appearance, which can result in drawn-out conflicts with abutters,” he said. “Resident homesites look easy, but they’re not. And they do not qualify as affordable housing.”

The four new units will not add to Chilmark’s subsidized housing index (SHI), which is the lowest on the Island at a vaporous 0.7 percent, according to the 2013 MVC Housing Needs Assessment.

Any town in Massachusetts that has less than 10 percent SHI is vulnerable to 40B development — a state law that allows a developer to come in and build as he or she wants, only restricted by board of health regulations and the requirement that 20 to 25 percent of the housing stock qualify as “affordable” according to HUD criteria.

Martha’s Vineyard has one bulwark against an unwanted 40B development.

“I’m not worried about the threat of 40B here,” Jim Feiner, a realtor and chairman of the Chilmark housing committee, said. “On Martha’s Vineyard we have a great deal of protection from the MVC [Martha’s Vineyard Commission]. It’s a very powerful body, and it takes the incentive away for people to go down the path of 40B.”

Rentals hold the key

“Ownership is what we want, rental is what we need,” Mr. Vigneault said. “We have 230 people on a waiting list for rentals, and we all know that’s the tip of the iceberg.”

“I would love to have rental housing in Chilmark,” selectman Warren Doty told The Times. “It’s not a zoning issue as much as it’s a cost issue. It costs $250,000 to create one rental unit in Chilmark. That cost has to be paid entirely by the town.”

Chilmark’s last effort to develop rental housing was part of the Middle Line Road affordable housing project, completed in 2010 after years of wrangling over the scope and nature of the project — all rentals or a mix.

The Middle Line Road project includes six rental units built and owned by the town, and six single-family houses, owned by lottery winners who planned and built their own homes, located on 21 acres of heavily wooded town-owned land located about a half-mile down Middle Line Road, a dirt road that intersects with Tabor House Road near the town landfill.

Mr. Doty said the next affordable housing effort in Chilmark will most likely be another homesite lottery for a yet-to-be-determined number of parcels at Peaked Hill.

At annual town meeting last spring, Chilmark voters took steps to create more rental housing, and approved an accessory apartment bylaw, modeled after the West Tisbury bylaw, which allows all homeowners to build a detached “affordable” housing unit on their property, which can also be used for housing a homeowner’s caregiver or family members.

Mr. Feiner presented the bylaw to town meeting voters.

“In my 15 years of being on the housing committee, we have awarded less than 12 homesites,” he said. “We need to do better; we need to do more.”