Our Vineyard housing crisis, thinking outside the box


The shortage of affordable housing on Martha’s Vineyard is clearly a major crisis and requires some creative “outside the box” solutions.

As a real estate professional, father, and grandfather, I have critical concerns about the impact our profound affordable housing crisis will have on the community. During our recent Great Recession, I consulted and assisted many Vineyard folks as they sought to avoid the horrific tragedy of foreclosure. Based on my public and professional background, I see no social issue facing the Vineyard today as important as our current affordable- and workforce-housing crisis. The degree to which we promptly meet this challenge will affect the future lifestyle and cost of living in the Vineyard community.

Our teachers, police officers, firefighters, restaurant employees, retail personnel, trade professionals, and so many others we depend upon, are finding it increasingly impossible to live here. It will get much worse unless we turn this crisis around. Nary a week goes by when I do not hear about someone’s desperate fight to find housing.

The six Island towns, working with the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) and assisted by consultants, have embarked on the creation of housing production plans. The Island Housing Trust deserves great credit for its efforts and wonderful projects. The Dukes County Housing Authority has devoted considerable effort, as have other dedicated individuals. But for all their hard work and excellent intentions, the complete solution does not rest solely with limited municipal projects, or with nonprofits. What we do now is but a Band-Aid. We desperately require a meaningful cure. Private developers and Island builders must be a key part of the solution. But absent significant changes meant to facilitate the permitting process, private developers will generally and unfortunately sit on the sidelines.

Chrystal Kornegay, the state Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) undersecretary, upon her recent visit to our Island said, “Development is more complicated than people think. It’s always better to get somebody who understands the process and all the things that can come up, and the ways one might deal with those. So why would a municipality want to build that capacity when they could get it from a developer?”  

However, most developers and builders are frustrated and discouraged by the minefield of obstacles and expenses placed in front of them by the communities and the MVC, the very entities that should be supporting and encouraging their efforts.

The MVC must reach out as a partner with responsible developers, and not be seen as an obstacle. In addition to telling developers what they need to do to comply with guidelines, the question ought to be, “How can we assist and make this project happen?” So many developers and builders pale at the thought of the obstacles and expenses they will confront through the often lengthy MVC process.

Septic systems and the growing requirement for extensive and expensive denitrification not only add real costs, but also diminish the required density necessary to make a project financially feasible. There are septic-system options that are far less expensive and that have proven to result in far less nitrogen loading than current Title 5 systems and proposed denitrification systems. I invite the MVC to join, explore, and propose that such systems be installed and thoroughly tested, and just maybe we can make some real progress with this vital issue. It’s time to get innovative and think “outside the box.”

The Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank is one of the largest property owners on the Vineyard.  Perhaps it is now time to reduce the Land Bank fee from the current 2 percent of all real estate transactions to 1 percent, and direct the remaining 1 percent to supporting affordable housing. This does require legislative approval, but with support from our community it is actually quite feasible.

In 2015 the Land Bank generated $12.9 million in gross revenues. Imagine what a difference we could make to help folks get into housing with supportive affordable housing revenue of over $6 million per year and with no fundraising or additional contributions by anyone.

Developers have the sophistication and experience to get quite creative. I personally can think of many more “outside the box” suggestions than space in this column allows. 

In sum, as a major commercial developer on Martha’s Vineyard, my partners and I would love to invest in and develop a large-scale affordable housing project, but the obstacles are very discouraging.


Robert M. Sawyer

Vineyard Haven

Robert Sawyer is the author of “Massachusetts Real Estate Principles, Practice & Law,” a real estate law instructor, consultant, and developer, and former county commissioner.