Oak Bluffs affordable housing committee fights uphill battle

Lots shown in yellow are owned by the town of Oak Bluffs. Those shown in red are owned by the Oak Bluffs Affordable Housing Trust. — map courtesy of Island Housing T

Oak Bluffs appears well-equipped to tackle the need for affordable housing. The town owns significant land where the infrastructure would allow for density. However, at the time when the Oak Bluffs affordable housing committee (OBAHC) needs to be running on all cylinders, it is sputtering along.

Citing an overbooked schedule, Oak Bluffs selectman and multi-committee member Walter Vail recently resigned from the housing committee. In 2014, Ewell Hopkins, longtime housing advocate and former chairman of the OBAHC, resigned to make a successful run for the Oak Bluffs Planning Board (OBPB). Now the seven-member OBAHC is down to three members — chairman Marie Doubleday, and relative newcomers Peter Bradford and selectman Kathy Burton — at a time when the advisory committee is charged with the critical, time-consuming task of leading the effort to create affordable and/or workforce housing in the largest town on the Island.

All three committee members work demanding jobs with long hours. Ms. Burton, a selectman in her seventh year and the only member with real estate experience, is currently is the branch manager at Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank. Mr. Bradford is a chef at Red Cat restaurant in Oak Bluffs. Ms. Doubleday is a licensed mental health counselor with offices in Edgartown and Falmouth, where she commutes three days a week.

They have no administrative support. One of the members takes the minutes. They meet once a month, often squeezing it in at 8 am, according to Ms. Doubleday.

Strong foundation
Oak Bluffs owns a sizeable number of lots, including 16 lots that were purchased by the now-defunct Oak Bluffs Resident Homesite Committee (RHC), the town’s first attempt at affordable housing, begun in the late 1980s. The total assessed value of the RHC real estate portfolio is $3.5 million, according to the Dukes County Registry of Deeds. The lots were recently transferred to the Oak Bluffs Affordable Housing Trust (OBAHT) by vote at special town meeting on Nov. 17. The OBAHT is a merger of the board of selectmen and the OBAHC, created in 2009 so the Community Preservation Committee (CPC) could act quickly in the growing housing crisis and legally transfer funds for affordable housing expenditures without waiting for a vote at annual town meeting.

The OBAHT portfolio includes a seven-acre parcel next to the Martha’s Vineyard Ice Arena, with frontage on Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road, access to town sewering, and easy access to public transportation.

An as-yet-unconsummated land deal with the Land Bank would swap a 24-acre rectangular town-owned lot, known as the “doughnut hole” because it was landlocked, for ownership of a parcel next to the seven-acre parcel, adding to the development potential.

The property has the infrastructure to handle the multi-unit, year-round, rental housing advocated by the Duke’s Country Regional Housing Authority, the 2015 Oak Bluffs Community Development plan, and All-Island Planning Board, where “build density on density” has become a mantra in the past year.
The town also has cash to spend, and has for some time. In 2010 and 2011, town voters approved warrant articles that transferred a total of $300,000 of Community Preservation Act (CPA) funding to the Oak Bluffs Affordable Housing Trust. But endemic of the plodding pace that has frustrated Oak Bluffs affordable housing advocates for years, the $300,000 — minus a $40,000 disbursement for emergency roof repair at Lagoon Heights affordable housing in 2013 — sat untouched for five years because of incomplete paperwork, which was only finished this summer.

The OBAHT is also due a hefty $700,000 cash injection when the Southern Woodlands subdivision deal, now wending its way through the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, closes. The deal has been a decade in the making, and substantial progress has been made since the property was purchased for $5.15 million at a June 26 auction. The new owners will go before the MVC on Jan. 7 with the hard-won unanimous approval of the Oak Bluffs Planning Board in their pockets.House divided over housing subdivision
Selectmen have approved two OBAHT expenditures since the trust was completed this summer — a $15,000 “soft loan” for the winner of the January lottery of a Richmond Avenue single-family home, and at last Tuesday’s selectmen’s meeting, a $4,000 expenditure for title clearance, septic engineering and percolation tests for a single-family home lot on Towanticut Avenue.

The debate at the Dec. 15 selectmen’s meeting over this relatively small expenditure underscored the division within the OBAHT, and among town officials, on the best way to address the housing shortage.
Ms. Doubleday wants to act quickly to complete the Towanticut Avenue application for Community Preservation Committee (CPC) funds due in mid-January.

Mr. Bradford was not allowed to state his objections while selectmen deliberated. He did, however, speak during public comment. “Our committee hasn’t vetted this project,” he told the board. “To think we can come back in a month without vetting this more is really poor planning in my opinion.”

Although Ms. Doubleday strongly disagreed, CPC member Amy Billings supported Mr. Bradford. “I think what Pete has planned is a good option,” she told selectmen.

This week, Mr. Bradford and Ms. Doubleday furthered their positions in conversations with The Times.
“Careful planning is finding what we own and then deciding what project to build, as a committee,” Mr. Bradford told The Times on Monday. “We need to know what we’re going to build and have a line-by-line budget. With Towanticut we went from a two-family building, where the numbers almost made sense, to a one-family building that is going to have a huge subsidy. We’re talking about $520,000 to build a house that we can sell for $250,000 or so; that’s a $300,000 subsidy I don’t agree with. If we do that deal, I don’t think the planning board will let us anywhere near the $700,000 from the Southern Woodlands deal. I think the whole process is being rushed.” Mr. Bradford stated several times that his frustration is with the procedure, not with Ms. Doubleday personally. “If I get outvoted before the [OBAHT], that’s fine. I have no problem with that. I just want to work as a committee before we go to the CPC and the selectmen.”

“You can’t put in a detailed plan until you know what you’re going to build, but you can’t know what you can build until you get a perc test,” Ms. Doubleday told The Times. “We chose the Towanticut lot because it’s a good-sized lot and it was recommended by the town assessor. It’s also right by the VFW; it’s progress that people can see.”

Ms. Doubleday said multi-unit rental properties should be a priority. “I am very much in support on trying to get rental properties moving. If we go over 20 units, we have a better chance of getting funding outside of the town. But we have to see what the voters will tolerate. At least now, if we shoot for something smaller, we can get going. I just want to get something done. I’m not running for office, I just want to help.”
Kathy Burton told The Times she sees the benefits of both arguments. “We need those tests either way,” she said about the Towanticut lot. “But maybe we should slow down. We’re a relatively inexperienced group, so we thought a sale was the most attainable.”

Before her banking career, Ms. Burton spent over 20 years in the real estate business on the Island. “I personally think we should look to create rental housing and ownership,” she said. Ms. Burton said that duplex homes, like the model Mr. Bradford advocates for Towanticut, could make a difference. “You get four of those done a year, pretty soon you’re making a dent,” she said. Ms. Burton said her primary concern is getting a full board at the OBAHC.

“We need help,” she said. “It would be great to have people with any kind of related experience, but we need volunteers who care about affordable housing in Oak Bluffs. Three people is not enough to get the job done.”

Get help
“I see incredible potential in Oak Bluffs,” Island Housing Trust (IHT) executive director Philippe Jordi told The Times.

“With the amount of town-owned land there is, Oak Bluffs is way ahead of the game. At the same time, when you have a small group of well-meaning volunteers who maybe meet once a month, it’s hard to get things done.”

Mr. Jordi agrees the OBAHC needs administrative help to take the meeting minutes and to help churn out Requests for Proposals (RFP).

“They just need to put together an RFP and get these things out the door,” he said. “We’re in a good position to respond, or to bring in partners if the situation warrants it.” Mr. Jordi said the majority of time, when an affordable or workforce housing project on the Island sends out an RFP, the IHT is sole respondent because the razor-thin profit margins deter for-profit bidders.

Several people involved with affordable housing believe the best money the OBAHT can spend right now is to hire a professional who knows the intricacies of affordable/workforce housing, and how to raise the grant money to pay for it.

CPC chairman Joan Hughes told The Times in an earlier interview that the idea has been discussed in the past. “I thought it was a good idea in a lot of ways,” she said. “The CPC would definitely have paid for it. But different people had different agendas, and it just kind of died.”

“I think it’s a great idea.” Ms. Burton said. “If Joan thinks she can get the funding, I’m all for it.”
Mr. Vail also endorses the idea. “We need someone who’s employed by the town to get things organized,” he said. “Someone with planning experience, even part-time, could be a great help. I’m sure there is grant money we could find to pay for that.”