Taking housing to the bank

Committee seeks to reaffirm Island’s commitment to a housing bank.

Richard Leonard, who has served on the Island Housing Trust, is part of a group leading the effort for an Island-wide housing bank. Leonard says the non-binding question is being sought to reaffirm the commitment to housing initiatives. —MV Times

Mopeds are getting the buzz, immigration policy is generating emotion, but there’s another Island-wide initiative on town meeting agendas that’s an age-old problem in search of a solution. A 13-member committee is seeking support for a Vineyard Housing Bank, in a nonbinding question that is a first step toward a long-term solution to the housing gap on Martha’s Vineyard.

The question will appear on annual town meeting warrants in five of the six Vineyard towns, beginning with Oak Bluffs and West Tisbury on April 11. The Edgartown selectmen balked at putting it on that town’s ballot, because when it was presented to them it included use of Community Preservation funds.

“We support it, but don’t support using CPC [community preservation committee] funds,” Michael Donaroma, an Edgartown selectman, said. Community Preservation funds are collected through a surcharge on property taxes. The money can be spent on historic preservation, open space, and housing.

Community Preservation funds are no longer part of the nonbinding question. There is no funding source identified, because that’s premature, said Richard Leonard, a member of the committee.

The committee is asking a basic question: “Are you in favor of establishing a regional housing bank to address the critical needs on the Vineyard?”

With apologies to New York Yankees fans, Mr. Leonard uses the dramatic comeback of the Red Sox in 2004 as an analogy for the committee’s goal. He points to Game 4 of the playoffs between the Yankees and Red Sox. The Sox were down 3 games to none in the series, and were behind by a run in the game. Kevin Millar walked, Dave Roberts pinch-ran and stole second, and the scene was set for an epic Sox comeback.

“They needed to get to second base,” Leonard said. “That’s what we’re trying to do. Let’s get to second base. Let’s get the yes vote. Let’s make sure it’s something people want.”

Abbe Burt, another member of the committee, said the panel is attempting to reaffirm votes taken in 2005, an initiative she also worked on. All six towns approved the housing bank; it went to the state legislature, but failed to win approval to become law.

So the committee is starting slowly this time. Get approval of the concept, then move ahead with details such as how to pay for it, Mr. Leonard said. They don’t want to get hung up on those now, but simply want an up or down vote to gauge public sentiment. If voters approve the nonbinding question, the committee would design the housing bank and look for “a dependable source of funding,” he said.

Richard Toole, a former president of the Vineyard Conservation Society and member of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, points out the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank funding mechanism as a possible model for how a housing bank might succeed. The Land Bank has played a role in preserving 3,100 acres of open space.

Robert Sawyer, a developer and businessman, began the housing bank effort two months ago. He wanted to get beyond the housing production plans research by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. The need, demonstrated through commission data, may be defined in part by price. Vineyard median single-family home prices range from $644,500 to $1.4 million, but median Island salaries of $43,000 to $80,000 can’t begin to pay such prices. Rental properties are scarce, with just 9 percent of the Island’s total housing stock comprising condos, multifamily, and mobile homes.

In an email, Mr. Sawyer wrote that support is growing for the nonbinding question. Even two Edgartown selectmen have signed on. “It’s a good idea moving forward,” Mr. Donaroma said. “There’s a need for affordable housing.”

This isn’t just about affordable housing, it’s about workforce housing, and rental housing, Mr. Leonard said: “There’s just a need for housing.”