Time to build housing


Just about everyone interested in the quality of our personal and community lives on Martha’s Vineyard knows this: We don’t have enough (or enough types of) housing to meet the needs of any but the luckiest year-round Islanders.

The first round of results released by the All-Island Planning Board of its online housing survey, reported on in The Times (Barry Stringfellow, Dec. 8), begins to paint a data-rich picture of our Island-wide population. As we all know, there is a wide range of personal housing access and security. But hearteningly, the survey shows support for an increased supply of housing across the board.

The Island’s housing demographics revealed by the study are sobering: Half of Islanders in need of year-round housing can’t find any. More than one-third of them pay 50 percent or more of their income for housing. And about 30 percent of renters want to buy a house but can’t find one they can afford. Anecdotally, we also increasingly hear that many young families, frequently the children of earlier generations of Islanders fortunate enough to have arrived on the Island in the 1970s and 1980s, when real estate values were reasonable, would like to return home and raise families where they themselves grew up; they struggle mightily, yet simply can’t make the housing equation work.The Island’s housing deficit also challenges staffing for essential town business such as health inspection, as The Times reports elsewhere in today’s paper (“Oak Bluffs public health and building departments on overload,” Barry Stringfellow).

While still diffuse — as one might expect at this stage of an Island-wide planning process — support for solutions which might increase supply cuts across income and town divides. In general, priorities lie with housing for families earning less than $50,000, for young families, for elder housing, and for families earning between $50,000 and $100,000.

This emerging support needs to be cultivated and trumpeted in clear and unequivocal terms. It must be impressed on selectmen and commissioners and professional planners, and then turned into necessary planning interventions and actual projects. The litany of obstacles, though important in themselves, can’t be allowed to stonewall solutions. And time matters: Absent thoughtful and innovative planning and active intervention, the Island’s housing shortage will only change for the worse, and the hill to climb to catch up will only grow steeper.

Housing supply constraints on Martha’s Vineyard — and underlying land-use policies and resultant real estate values — are not “natural” constraints. It’s understandable that long-term, multigenerational Islanders and new arrivals have wanted to preserve historic (if not simply nostalgic) virtues over the past several decades. But these sensibilities and self-imposed planning and zoning policies have limited the availability and the use of land and existing homes, driven up their cost, and severely constrained politically and economically viable options for dealing with our housing shortage.

In a real way, the unintended consequences of four decades of formal and informal restrictive land-use policies intended to protect the “real Vineyard,” and the extremely high values driven by second-home ownership many of us have benefited from, are coming home to roost. These policies will seriously diminish options for Islanders of all ages and means, including — selfishly — our children, our parents, and ourselves.

These are well-intended and highly popular development limitations — tax-favored private conservation, Land Bank acquisitions, restrictive large-lot zoning — with almost no tolerance for planned development mixing higher density and open-space components, a historically antidevelopment regional planning commission, and even neighbors kicking in to take land and homes off the market. They have all created a firewall difficult to overcome. And our serial failures to provide the infrastructure of environmental mitigations needed to support adequate housing supplies makes each project especially vulnerable, and makes each incremental project hurdle inevitably more challenging.

A different kind of infrastructure issue, integral to our visitor economy, is the demand created by seasonal businesses and summer programs to house their employees. It’s one thing to imagine (although not happily) barracks at the airport, but with increasing ease, businesses and nonprofits are also buying existing houses for summer staff and removing them from the year-round housing pool. The enterprises involved all have purchasing power that few local residents can match.

The accelerating problem of zero housing availability is helping to spark a wider and more open-minded range of proposals and new ideas: secondary- and tertiary-dwelling-unit policies, little houses, and even houseboat projects are surfacing. This is encouraging. A modest and sorely needed project like Kuehn’s Way, however picked at by abutters, seems to have broad support as part of a larger Island solution, and the difficulties it has faced have helped prompt the kind of broad policy discussion we desperately need to have.

Open-minded approaches to new financing vehicles, as in Paul Lazes’s thoughtful Letter to the Editor (published in the Dec. 8 MV Times) will help move a discussion about financing approaches supplementing the subsidy-based efforts of Island Housing Trust along. And perhaps most productively, we may have reached the point where we can talk about adding higher-density, cluster, multifamily and rental projects to the mix of housing and land-use options we’ll need to draw on if we’re to become the healthy community we need to be.

The principal factor determining the character of life on Martha’s Vineyard over the next 20 years, and the principal reflection of our values as a community, will be played out around the choices we make in the near future about housing. The choices will affect newcomers and strangers, but also neighbors, friends, and, equally, older Islanders, and our children and families.

If we leave land-use policy and the consequent housing development process to the real estate market’s current gravitational pull, we’re headed toward a community profile where our housing stock belongs increasingly or exclusively to seasonal residents and their seasonal tenants, where Island workers arrive and depart by ferry each day, where our children can’t afford to raise their families, and where we move away as we age.

There simply aren’t enough places to live on Martha’s Vineyard. Unless we choose to keep it that way because we won’t moderate our own nostalgic or imaginary expectations, it’s past time to recalibrate our land-use priorities enough to include adequate housing opportunities.