While the creation of affordable housing on Martha’s Vineyard remains a drop in the proverbial bucket, The Resource Inc. (TRI) has been quietly, and effectively, attacking the housing crisis in a different way — by helping Islanders stay in homes they couldn’t otherwise afford to repair.
A heater dies during a record cold snap.
A leak in the roof gets worse with every storm.
A septic system is failing and a sizable fine looms.
Repairs like these can be a major undertaking, and for people who can’t afford them, they can spell disaster.
For the past 15 years, TRI has helped homeowners who are too stretched by their mortgage and/or property taxes to make essential improvements, and who can’t qualify for refinancing. Funded by Community Development Block Grants, TRI offers qualified applicants a 15-year, no interest, forgivable loan worth up to $40,000 for essential repairs. If the house is sold before the end of the 15 years, the balance of the loan is paid to TRI.
TRI has funded and managed more than 600 projects, and in her 11 years with TRI, program manager Melissa Vincent has overseen about 500 of those projects.
“We keep people in their homes,” she said. “If we didn’t have this program, a lot of people would probably have to sell.”
Oak Bluffs resident Melanie Godek would have been one of those people. She lives in a house that her father and extended family built on a Sunset Avenue youth lot that she acquired in 1994. Her family operated Stanley’s Hamburgers on Circuit Avenue for 23 years. She told The Times kismet led her to Vincent.
“I’d left my doggy bag behind at Jimmy See’s and when a friend dropped it off to me, he said, ‘Your house looks terrible,’ and he gave me Melissa’s card,” she said. “Melissa was amazing. She helped with the application, she was here all the time making sure the work was being done, I can’t say enough about her and the whole organization.”
The TRI loan enabled Godek to get new siding, a new roof, new gutters, new doors, and a new floor in the spring of last year. She said her heating bill is half of what it used to be. She was also able to widen the front stoop to accommodate the wheelchair her elderly mother, who lives with her, uses.
The Times spoke to Vincent last week at her Tisbury office, where the blackboard behind her desk is completely filled in with urgent repair jobs.
“This has been a really tough year,” she said. “We’ve done seven emergency septic systems between October and now. I’ve had three emergency heating systems come in between December 1 and now. And I already had a full schedule of projects. I have a client who’s 94 years old and she’s got a hole in the roof. She lives on Social Security. She would have no ability to put a new roof on her house if this didn’t exist. Then she called a few days ago and said she heard a loud bang in the middle of the night. It was her furnace. I said, ‘Well, we can help you with that too.’”
TRI loans are available for Islanders who make 80 percent or less Area Median Income (AMI). Guest houses can also be renovated with TRI funds, provided they are rented to Islanders year-round at a rate deemed affordable by Housing and Urban Development (HUD) criteria. According to HUD guidelines, an “affordable” one-bedroom home would rent for $1050 without utilities. The application process is supervised by the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority.
TRI secures the loan with a lien on the borrower’s house.
“A lot of people get nervous when you tell them you’re going to put a lien on their home, but it’s a deferred forgivable lien,” Vincent said. “It falls off one-fifteenth each year, there’s no interest and no repayment unless you sell the property. It’s completely wiped off the books after 15 years. It just prevents people from flipping the houses.”
This is the 15th year of the program, so 2018 is the first year that mortgages will be released. “There have been eight mortgage releases so far this year and more will come up every month,” Vincent said.
Urgency takes priority
The process begins when the prospective borrower picks up an application.
“Sometimes the paperwork can be overwhelming,” Ms. Vincent said. “It’s a 12-page application and if you’ve got a lot going on or have health issues it can be daunting. We tell everybody when we give out an application, ‘please come to us if you need help.’”
After a thorough home inspection, repairs are ranked in order of necessity. TRI loans can cover a range of work, but urgency takes priority.
“A failed septic system, a hole in your roof or a heating system that’s not working will trump an application that has a need for windows and doors, or stoops and stairs,” she said. “We look at the outside shell first. We check the roof, siding, and the overall structural integrity before we look inside. There’s no sense in doing something on the inside if the structural integrity is compromised on the outside.”
Work moves quickly. Contractors have to interview with Ms. Vincent and the homeowner on site, then they have one week to submit their bids.
“We have some contractors we like to work with but if a homeowner has someone they’d like, they can contact us, fill out the packet that asks for licenses, insurance, references,” she said.
Oak Bluffs and Tisbury combined to commit $532,000 to TRI for 2018. Although that funding is already committed, applicants with extremely urgent repairs can move up the list. Some people slated for repairs in 2017 were bumped to 2018 to accommodate emergencies. “You can’t leave someone with no heat to help someone with drafty windows,” Vincent said. “People are generally pretty understanding about it. But this is going to be a tough year. There’s only so many people I can bump for emergencies.”
Edgartown still has Community Development Block Grant money, which can also go to projects in West Tisbury and Aquinnah.
Block grant funding was temporarily cut from the 2018 HUD budget but was reinstated after an active lobbying campaign.
“Every year I sign a one-year contract,” Vincent said. “Nothing is a given.”
Help from PALS
An Islander who makes well over 80 percent AMI can still struggle to pay for a new roof over his or her head. To service the people who make over 80 percent AMI and less than 100 percent AMI, Ms. Vincent developed “PALS” — Preserving Affordability with Loan Support. Under PALS, homeowners can get a loan of up to $35,000, The same conditions of the 15 year lien for CDBG money applies. “PALS is my baby,” she said. “It’s our response to this income gap that so many Islanders fall into. It allows us to take those clients who were falling through the cracks because they were making a few thousand over the 80 percent AMI. That doesn’t mean they have $15,000 for their roof or $18,000 for a new heating system. We have a lot of these situations. It’s really sad when somebody walks in the door and they’re barely getting by and they don’t qualify. It happens a lot with older folks. If they have a pension and social security, they might be over [80 percent AMI] by $2000, and you have to tell them that you can’t help them. With PALS, a person who could only make $47,600 to qualify for 80 percent or less can now make $60,850. You can go up to 99 percent AMI with Community Preservation Funds. Generally you only find funding for 60 percent and less in the Commonwealth. We’re doing well to get the 80 percent. There’s no state or federal funding out there for over 80 percent.”
Under PALS guidelines, a household of two can make up to $69,595 and a family of four up $86,995
PALS money can only be used to maintain the structural integrity of the house. “It can be for roofing, siding, windows, a heating system, septic system, plumbing, and electric,” she said. “Things like flooring, ramps, stoops and stairs would not be covered.”
PALS was first funded in July of last year. At April town meeting, Chilmark, Edgartown, and Oak Bluffs voters approved a $70,000 expenditure of CPC funds for PALS. Tisbury, West Tisbury, and Aquinnah did not allocate funds.
More information on TRI can be found at www.theresource.org or by calling 508-696-3285.