West Tisbury: Affordable housing loner, for now

Housing Bank advocates take stock, contemplate a committee with selectmen.

Finance Committee member Doug Ruskin reflects on what went right and wrong in the bid to assemble a Housing Bank. — Rich Saltzberg

The West Tisbury affordable housing committee held a meeting with West Tisbury selectmen on May 29 at the Howes House. Housing Bank advocates also attended, and participated in a discussion about the future of the Housing Bank idea, and how best to form a committee to explore the Housing Bank.

Selectmen chairman Skipper Manter reread the motion that changed the course of the Housing Bank article on the last day of the annual town meeting,

“To see if the town will vote to refer the issue to a committee composed of the board of selectmen, the affordable housing committee, or their designees, to engage in discussions and negotiations with the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority and the other Island towns to develop a proposed home rule petition in support of the formation of a Martha’s Vineyard Housing Bank, and report back to a special or annual town meeting and seek approval prior to submitting any such home rule petition to the legislature.”

Manter pointed out the concept was popular in West Tisbury. “Obviously there was a lot of enthusiasm about this proposal, and nobody questioned the need [for] affordbale housing across West Tisbury, or the Island, for that matter,” he said. Manter hoped those gathered would engage in a “brainstorming session.”

Town administrator Jennifer Rand said she got a good, though “informal,” picture of the disposition of the rest of the Vineyard on the subject of Housing Bank cooperation.

“I met with my counterparts in all of the five other towns last week on another matter, so while I had them hostage in town hall, I asked them where they were going with the Housing Bank in their towns, because across the Island there were different votes taken, and at this moment Tisbury and Oak Bluffs do not intend to take it up,” she said. “Tisbury has a committee to discuss it, but does intend to take up the Housing Bank Island-wide issue. Aquinnah doesn’t plan to take it up at this time. Edgartown is looking at it internally, [but] isn’t looking yet to work with other communities. Chilmark is waiting at this moment to see, I think, the outcome of House Bill 2457, of which you have parts of today.”

Rand went on to say House Bill 2457 is not a Housing Bank bill, but an up-to-2-percent transfer tax similar to the Land Bank’s, through community-by-community opt-in participation. The proceeds are meant to go into a municipal housing trust fund.

Rand said she spoke to state Rep. Dylan Fernandes, D-Falmouth, who informed her that since Bill 2457 allows communities to create a new tax, it will be more difficult to pass, whereas a housing bill specific to the Vineyard using existing revenue is likely a simpler legislative hurdle.

Rand summed up by saying there was nothing at the State House presently dedicated to the Vineyard, and the other Island towns “aren’t prepared to form an Island-wide group to work on this … maybe once we start doing legwork, other communities will join on.”

Selectman Cynthia Mitchell suggested the board and the committee have a debrief about the three-day annual town meeting recently held, and to also talk about mistakes that may have been made in the local legislative process. “I’d like to hear people’s thoughts about those two things,” she said.

“So what you are saying is that we are essentially on our own,” affordable housing committee Ted Jochsberger said.

“At least to start,” Mitchell said.

Jochsberger waxed pessimistic about the lack of initiative from other communities. “I’m 80 years old; I don’t think I’ll ever see the end of it,” he said. “I mean, it just seems to me that none of the other towns can either make up their mind, or they made up their mind not to do this, so I don’t know where this goes, but … the Housing Bank thing I think is dead.”

“So the overriding criticism I heard of the whole process was that people didn’t feel they had been given enough information prior to the town meeting,” affordable housing committee member Rise Terney said. “There were even comments that there was — it was sort of this secret group … I think we do need to go ahead and move forward, and hopefully we will get other towns interested.”

She went on to say it was “critical we keep people informed of what we’re doing.”

Makenzie Brookes, campaign manager for the Housing Bank, questioned Rand about her confab with other town administrators.

“But since it was an informal item of discussion that you brought up yourself, how would you rate the responses of your fellow town administrators in terms of them being anecdotal or like they actually had a meeting and all the selectmen agreed?” she asked. “Because I just don’t want all of us to get super discouraged…”

Brookes went on to suggest the town administrators might not be accurate representations of town will in such an informal setting.

“It was super informal,” Rand said. “However, Tisbury has a committee …”

“Is that planning board taking it up in Tisbury?” Brookes asked.

“I don’t know … Edgartown, I think has a committee, Oak Bluffs is not addressing it, Aquinnah is not addressing it at this moment, and Chilmark is standing down for now,” Rand said. “So it was informal but … I’m just relaying at this moment the other town administrators didn’t feel that their towns were ready to dive with a six-town committee to move forward to address this.”

“And when you brought it up, was it in the context of if West Tisbury were to form a committee, do you all think you would jump on board?”

Rand reiterated it was informal.

Finance committee member Doug Ruskin, who is affiliated with the Island Housing Trust

and the Housing Bank campaign, said he did not think there was any secrecy involved in the Housing Bank lobby.

The goal of the group “was to promote an Island-wide solution with a reliable source of funding,” he said. “I’ll be the first to say we made a raft of mistakes, but what we didn’t do is we didn’t bury the issue — there’s been more discussion about this in the last few months than I’ve seen in the last few years, so from my personal perspective, that’s a really good thing.”

In a mea culpa moment, he said not having concrete details for the proposed legislation was a mistake.

“The broader intention was to get the discussion going, with the understanding that the details of the framework would get ironed out during the legislative process,” he said. “That was clearly an error.”

The discussion went on for the better part of an hour. Manter ultimately said he would like to assemble the committee soon via another joint meeting, perhaps by putting the issue on next week’s or the following week’s selectmen’s agenda.

In other business, Rand announced West Tisbury Town Hall will be closed Tuesday, June 4, until 1 pm for staff training.