All-Island Planning Board adopts regional approach to create housing

Breaking new ground in the effort to tackle an Island crisis, the newly formed Housing Work Group will help towns to meet housing goals.

Jeffrey Canha's 270-square-foot art studio, which currently floats in Vineyard Haven Harbor — Photo by Sam Moore

Seeking to make substantive, Island-wide progress in the face of a growing crisis, the All-Island Planning Board (AIPB), made up of representatives from the six Martha’s Vineyard towns, unanimously voted last week to create a Housing Work Group (HWG) that will oversee an ambitious plan to create a variety of new housing.

The HWG will be a subcommittee of the AIPB — a smaller, more nimble body that can work more quickly and efficiently than the 30-plus-member AIPB. At its core, and according to a charter accepted last Wednesday by the member towns, the HWG will work to create a Housing Production Plan (HPP) for each town. Town HPPs will set rental and ownership production targets for affordable housing — 80 percent or less of area median income (AMI) — and community housing — 150 percent of AMI — as well as elderly housing.  For a family of four in Dukes County, 80 percent AMI is $65,800 and 150 percent AMI is $131,000.

Market-rate rentals and seasonal workforce housing will also be included in town plans, although they are not required under state HPP guidelines.

“There are a lot of people out there who can write the check, but can’t find a place to live,” Ewell Hopkins, AIPB member from Oak Bluffs, said about the market-rate shortage.

Each HPP will include short- and long-term strategies to reach production goals and to determine what kind of housing best achieves the goal; accessory units, multi-unit housing, and “tiny houses” were a few of the options discussed.

The HWG will look at zoning modifications in areas that have the potential for building with increased density, a frequently stated goal of the AIPB.

When the six towns’ HPPs are complete, they will be consolidated into an Island-wide HPP, then be vetted and reviewed by the full AIPB.

“The state wants a plan from each town,” West Tisbury AIPB member Henry Geller said. “We want to lobby the state so we can act as a larger entity. It makes sense for us to move ahead as one unit.”

The HWG will combine one representative from each town — Mr. Geller, Peter Temple from Aquinnah, Sam Hart from Chilmark, Dan Seidman from Tisbury, Brian Packish from Oak Bluffs, and Georgiana Greenough from Edgartown — along with Island Housing Trust (IHT) director Philippe Jordi and Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) executive director Adam Turner.

The MVC, Island IHT, and Martha’s Vineyard Donors Collaborative have agreed to seek outside funding to hire a consultant to assist the process.

Not just another acronym

HPPs are powerful tools, used by towns throughout the commonwealth to increase the number of affordable housing units to meet the 10 percent State Housing Inventory (SHI) target, mandated by 40B criteria, set by the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD). Under 40B, developers can bypass local zoning restrictions on density in exchange for constructing a percentage of affordable housing.

Any town with less than 10 percent subsidized housing inventory (SHI) is susceptible to outside developers coming in and building it for them, and leaving the town with far less control over the final product.

On Martha’s Vineyard, there are 411 affordable units, according to a 2013 Martha’s Vineyard Commission Housing Needs Assessment, which also lists 7,368 year-round occupied housing units, bringing the Vineyard average in around 5 percent. Of the six towns, Aquinnah comes in at a whopping 26 percent — 31 of the 41 SHI units are under the aegis of the Tribal Housing Authority. The down-Island towns all hover in the 5 percent SHI neighborhood, followed by West Tisbury at 1.8 percent, with Chilmark straggling in at 0.7 percent.

The idea for an Island-wide HPP gained traction in the wake of the groundbreaking town meeting vote on Nantucket in November that cleared the way for Wilmington-based Richmond Group to build Richmond Great Point, a 325-unit development comprised of 225 rental apartments and 100 single-family homes on two parcels. Commercial and light industrial zoning, which are also in short supply on the Vineyard, are included in the Nantucket plan.

Nantucket officials submitted an HPP to the DCHD in 2009.

Mr. Geller noted that with Mr. Turner involved from the beginning, the MVC may be more inclined to approve a town’s HPP or even bypass the review process all together.

“The idea is to have discussions prior to a developer coming, which would take an astronomical time to review,” Mr. Turner said.

Mr. Jordi, who was not at the meeting, recently told The Times that the power of the MVC and the caprice of the DRI checklist has been a major deterrent in attracting off-Island developers like the Richmond Group.

Another key function of the HPP will be to create uniformity, so specs for a “tiny house” will be the same in Aquinnah and Edgartown.

The HPP will cover five years from the date it’s approved by the AIPB. The DHCD requires annual progress of one-half percent toward the town inventory target. If the Island can keep that pace, it will reach the 10 percent threshold in 10 years.

A crucial component of the HWG will be examining ways that towns can equitably share the costs of increased housing density — nitrogen loading, infrastructure use, and school assessments are particularly high hurdles to clear.

“We can look at mitigation payments from the other five towns for a town that hosts 50 to 100 units,” Mr. Seidman said. “The best way to stimulate the conversation is to be an example to the Island and show how we can work together.”

House ahoy

The most spirited discussion of the evening came when Vineyard Haven resident Jeff Canha proposed the viability of floating tiny houses to help mitigate the housing shortage. In a Powerpoint presentation, Mr. Canha showed how his 270-square-foot “house,” which currently floats in Vineyard Haven Harbor, was made.

“Let’s call it a cabin, because that’s what most boats have,” he said. Mr. Canha said his cabin was built by Amish tradesmen in Michigan and then shipped to Falmouth. Mr. Canha, who is a commercial fisherman, locally known artist, and charter captain, built the floating foundation at Ralph Packer’s marina. When the cabin arrived in Falmouth, Mr. Canha towed the foundation across Vineyard Sound, bolted the cabin on the foundation, and towed his home home.

Mr. Canha said he had just returned from Scandinavia, where floating houses are common. He said there are towns in the United States that also have communities of small floating houses, such as Sausalito, Calif.

Mr. Canha’s presentation ended with a picture of an Environmental Police officer putting an inspection decal, with a hull number, on his cabin, which he now uses as his art studio.

Vineyard Haven resident Paul Doherty railed against Mr. Canha’s floating cabin. “I find it offensive. It’s detrimental to Vineyard Haven Harbor,” he said, adding that the burnt orange color was “hideous”: “It ruins the entire view.”

“I don’t like sailboats but I don’t complain about them,” Mr. Canha said.

“We’re neither advocating this or endorsing this,” Mr. Seidman said. “As a town we have to look at what happens in the harbor. At the moment, there’s nothing stopping there being 100 of them.”

Oak Bluffs AIPB member Brian Packish said any attempt by the AIPB to regulate harbors would be opening a can of worms.

“We need to look into this,” Oak Bluffs AIPB member Bo Fehl said. “The Navy has floating hotels, four stories tall and 300 feet long. Do we want one of those? No. But we should consider all of our options when it comes to housing.”

“I think Jeff has opened up a great door for us here,” Derril Bazzy, AIPB member from Aquinnah, said.

“The boat with helicopter in the harbor is a shiny version of [Mr. Canha’s cabin], and that is what is ruining my Island,” Mr. Packish said, to a round of applause.

Tisbury harbor regulations, under the heading “use of vessel as an abode,” state, “The use of vessels in Tisbury as a permanent or long-term abode is specifically prohibited. Sleeping aboard vessels is allowed as a secondary use to the vessel’s principal commercial or recreational use (i.e.: cruising).”