Housing and problem-solving

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Watershed moments in major public planning projects (read: projects requiring change and/or money) usually turn out to be overblown and disappointing. We often imagine we’re at a turning point, but the weight of gravity almost always favors kicking the can down the road a bit longer. We look for more information and broader participation — perhaps another meeting or a new report — and voilà! we make a decision by not making a decision at all.

We’d like to think that we might be at a true turning point in finally coping with Martha’s Vineyard’s housing problem, already much analyzed and well-understood. In a flurry of planning studies and preliminary reports released within the past few weeks and reported on in The Times (Barry Stringfellow, Island housing production plan zeroes in on strategy, Dec. 22, and Bill Chaisson, “Planner urges multiple strategies to create Chilmark affordable housing,” Feb. 2; and in this issue, Edie Prescott, “Chilmark selectmen hear summary of housing production plan”), pathways to increasing each Island town’s supply of housing for year-round residents have been laid out carefully — if somewhat tentatively, out of respect for each town’s prerogatives.

The housing production plans (HPP)were coordinated by the All-Island Planning Board, under the aegis of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. The typical motivation for carrying out HPPs is to proactively ward off section 40B developers from developing affordable housing projects that can circumvent local zoning. But so-called hostile 40B development on the Island is unlikely owing to expense, so the HPP process suits us best as a planning information vehicle. The question is whether this time around, a well-grounded process for making public policy can attract the leadership and the political will to get us to the downhill side of the watershed.

The general conclusion, no surprise, confirms that we have a serious housing problem at many levels of affordability, and presents town-by-town goals and pathways for getting out from under. Jennifer Goldson, lead author of the HPPs, makes clear that solutions will need to draw on a combination of zoning changes, new sources of financial support, and increased land acquisition. In many ways, the language of the preliminary studies — urgency and optimism — matches the conversation that newly elected State Senator Julian Cyr had with Times reporters at our offices (Barry Stringfellow, “Senator Cyr charts a course for the Cape and Islands,” Feb. 2).

Throughout, there is a clear attitude that we’d like to solve the housing problem this time around, and the HPP studies give us clear and useful targets. We worry, though, that we’ll forgo the best solutions if we start being weighed down by the constraints, the deal breakers, the not-very-Vineyard rules which could relegate this burst of well-organized and well-presented data to its place in the museum of good ideas.

The academic Russell Ackoff (“Idealized Design: How to Dissolve Tomorrow’s Crisis … Today”) and his students and colleagues would have viewed the housing challenge on Martha’s Vineyard as a perfect opportunity to apply techniques of “idealized design,” a process in which the planners begin with a clean-slate view of an ideal solution and then work backward to what is possible. Idealized design’s critical value is that the planning team has to step outside the mass of constraints — sacred cows, deal breakers and acquired biases — as they reach for fundamental change.

Making this approach work requires agreeing on the primary problem statement. Is it to meet the housing needs of year-round Islanders and our seasonal workforce in a way which then does its best to respect physical and historic attributes of Island life? Or is it to maintain the traditional physical and historic attributes of Island life in a way which then does its best to meet the housing needs of Islanders and our seasonal workforce?

Where we start will have a great deal to do with where we end up, and the burden of a plan like this is that eventually, it must attract support on the basis of our values and not our capacity for nostalgia. If we’re to have a healthy and balanced community into the future, it’s the only healthy choice. The lens through which we view the housing crisis on Martha’s Vineyard, and the one we think many in our community share, is that it’s time to favor the housing and get the job done. With that as the ideal, the leadership and the political will will follow