Island housing production plan zeroes in on strategy

Consultants, town officials, and townspeople gather for a final time to focus on how to raise the money for housing, and how best to spend it.

Consultant Jennifer Goldson presented a map that showed the most promising parcels for development in Oak Bluffs. —Barry Stringfellow

updated Dec. 21, 5 pm

Twenty-five concerned citizens showed up at the Oak Bluffs School last Wednesday night for the third and final housing production plan (HPP) interactive community workshop. The goal of the evening was to consider “specific implementation strategies” that will help create more housing in Oak Bluffs, and on Martha’s Vineyard.

The workshop was led by consultant Jennifer Goldson from Roslindale-based JM Goldson Community Preservation and Planning.

“If there’s any magic bullet, it’s political will and leadership,” Ms. Goldson said. “There is no one solution. We’re adopting a game of hitting singles, not home runs.”

The strategies suggested by Ms. Goldson were informed by data collected from research done this summer by Ms. Goldson and Judy Barrett from Boston-based RKG Associates; the September and November visioning workshops in all six towns; and from results of the recently completed All-Island Planning Board housing survey. All reports are posted on the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) website, under “Housing Production Plan.”

A wide range of ideas gained traction over the course of the workshops, including zoning changes to allow for increased density, cost sharing among towns, creation of a “housing bank,” taxing seasonal rentals, increasing Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds for housing, building dormitories for seasonal workers, and seeking state subsidies for enhanced wastewater treatment systems.

Over the evening, Ms. Goldson repeatedly pointed to the need for the six towns to work on a regional housing solution. “Island-wide problems need Island-wide solutions,” she said. “This is the biggest challenge we’ve found on this Island.”

The definition of “affordable housing” was also a point of discussion. The term “affordable,” as defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is based on 80 percent of area median income (AMI), currently $52,600 for a family of two in Dukes County. Ms. Goldson said for the purposes of the HPP, the definition of “affordable” on Martha’s Vineyard should be expanded to include people and families who make more than the AMI, but can’t find a year-round rental, or can’t qualify for a mortgage to buy a $400,000-plus starter home.

Finding funding

Ideas for raising the funds to create the affordable/workforce housing include a “housing bank,” funded by real estate transfer fees, either by splitting the 2 percent transfer fee currently paid to the Land Bank, or by adding an additional 0.5 percent fee on top of the Land Bank fee. Ms. Goldson estimated that a 0.5 percent real estate transaction fee could create between $8.5 million and $16 million on the Island over the next five years. But she also said the Massachusetts Association of Realtors, a powerful lobbying force on Beacon Hill, would provide stiff opposition.

A tax on seasonal rentals was also discussed. Ms. Goldson said according to research by Newton-based LDS Consulting, a 5 percent tax on seasonal rentals could create $31.5 million over five years for the Island, and $7.1 million for Oak Bluffs. She said it too would be difficult to pass on Beacon Hill — Brewster, Wellfleet, and Provincetown all attempted this year to pass “Home Rule” legislation for such a tax, and all three measures remain “stalled in committee,” Beacon Hill parlance for “dead in the water.”

According to the Massachusetts Department of Revenue, Home Rule legislation by any town can be trumped by the state legislature. The law states that “the state has sole authority to regulate elections; levy, assess and collect taxes.”

Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds were also targeted as potential income for housing. Ms. Goldson said a town Community Preservation Committee (CPC) can utilize up to 80 percent of its funding for housing. Over a five-year period, that could create a housing fund of $27 million for the Island and $5.2 million for Oak Bluffs. Oak Bluffs currently allocates 25 percent of CPA revenue for housing. Only Edgartown is lower, at 17 percent. Chilmark tops the list at 50 percent.

Ms. Goldson said another option is a Martha’s Vineyard Regional Housing Trust (MVRHT), which would pool the resources of the six Island towns, including CPA funds, money from local housing trusts, and town-owned land. The MVRHT would be overseen by a board with representatives from each town and from the MVC. If created, it would be the first regional housing trust in Massachusetts.

Funding from the private sector, an increasingly important source of capital on Martha’s Vineyard, was also discussed, as was a possible partnership with the Martha’s Vineyard Donors Collaborative.

Breaking ground

Ms. Goldson said wastewater management and housing are inexorably intertwined on Martha’s Vineyard.

“Wastewater treatment is one of the primary development constraints on the Island, and the Oak Bluffs wastewater plant is at capacity,” she said, noting that according to their research, the five wastewater plants on the Island treat less than 10 percent of Island properties, and more than 14,000 Island properties handle wastewater with septic tanks, considered a major source of nitrogen loading in Island ponds.

Ms. Goldson said there are significant funding sources for wastewater improvements such as MassWorks Infrastructure Program, and the Massachusetts Clean Water Trust, which Nantucket has tapped for sewer construction. She also noted that the wastewater treatment plant at the airport is well below capacity.

Ms. Goldson presented a map, done by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission based on JM Goldson/RKG Associates research data, that showed possible sites for building dense housing, e.g., multifamily homes or apartments, included several parcels of town-owned property. One popular location with workshop attendees was an eight-acre parcel on Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road next to the Ice Arena, which is controlled by the Oak Bluffs Affordable Housing Trust (OBAHT).

Another prime parcel is the nearby 24-acre “doughnut hole,” which, per the original Southern Woodlands deal with developer Corey Kupersmith in 2004, will someday be swapped with Land Bank property that abuts the aforementioned eight-acre parcel. The swap can’t take place until murky title issues on the “doughnut hole” are resolved. Until that happens, the town remains stuck with a large, landlocked parcel that is virtually useless to all but woodland creatures.
“Some action needs to be taken by the selectmen, who to this point have not solved the [title issues],” Oak Bluffs Planning Board (OBPB) member Bo Fehl told The Times. “That’s not right. They should be moving on it. That is a key to our HPP moving ahead. I’m at a loss why this is taking so long.”

A nine-acre parcel on Bellevue Avenue, off County Road, has also been cited as a potential site for housing density, although several attendees who spoke with The Times thought the proximity to the town landfill was an issue. Several of the 25 workshop attendees were homeowners who live in the Bellevue Avenue vicinity and were present specifically to oppose the project, according to Mr. Fehl.

People respond

The Times spoke with a number of attendees after the workshop. Many commented on the thoroughness of the data presented by Ms. Goldson, and at the same time, were disappointed that only 0.6 percent of 3,969 registered Oak Bluffs voters showed up.

“I truly believe the consultants did a fantastic job putting together with an unbiased look at where we should go with housing,” Mr. Fehl said. “I do, however, have a sense of great disappointment in the turnout, even more so that it was almost all homeowners. There were also people there who had a stake in not allowing potential projects to happen. When you’re in a project like HPP, I don’t think bias plays a role. This is for the good of the town.”

“It’s disappointing to see the dire need for housing, and not see the people in need at these meetings,” OBPB chairman Brian Packish said. Mr. Packish said he hopes the selectmen will take quick action and sign the draft of the final HPP at their meeting on Jan. 24. Once signed by the board and the OBPB, the draft will go to the state Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) for final approval.

“I was surprised by the ratio of renters to owners,” Chris Silva, one of only two renters in attendance, told The Times. Asked if the evening made him more optimistic about positive change, Mr. Silva, an art director at The MV Times, took a long pause. “Somewhat,” he said. “You have to start somewhere, but it seems like such a long process.” Mr. Silva said he felt fortunate to have a year-round lease on a small cottage: “But as a renter, you know it could change at any minute. It’s an uneasy feeling.” Mr. Silva said he took comfort in the fact that rental prices here aren’t as onerous as they are in his former hometown of New York City. “No one said I have to live here,” he said.

MVC commissioner-elect Richard Toole said his takeaway from the evening was the urgency for regional action. “We have to do this together; if O.B. has room for density, the up-Island towns have to help pay for it,” he said. “We’ve got to deal with workforce housing, or we’ll all be commuting on the boat every morning.”

Up-Island strategies

About 20 people gathered in Chilmark last Wednesday to discuss similar strategies to create affordable housing Up-Island. The workshop was led by Judi Barrett, the director of municipal services for RKG Associates.

Zoning laws in Chilmark require a three-acre minimum to build housing, but residents discussed changing zoning, in certain cases, to allow for increased density but not promote one-acre zoning overall.

As in Oak Bluffs, a tax on seasonal rentals was also discussed, and could bring in $4.3 million in estimated revenue over a five-year period to Chilmark.

Other ideas included concentrating housing in the center of town, or, if the Chilmark School were to close — an idea that has been suggested as both tensions and costs rise within the Up-Island Regional School District — housing could be placed on that land as well.

Paul Lazes of Vineyard Haven suggested that less than 1 percent of conservation land be released for affordable housing regionally, roughly 200 of the 24,00 acres in conservation.

The challenges of affordable housing and the urgent need for it, across the entire Island, were made clear throughout the HPP series. “I think a concern that we have is, despite the number of entities and the effort of everybody trying to work on this difficult issue, the housing needs and barriers are immense,” Ms. Barrett said. “We think that increasing capacities is something that’s going to need to be discussed in order to have a housing production plan that you can actually implement.”