Island Housing Trust tackles crisis with ‘innovation’

Annual brunch highlights achievements and work still to be done.


Updated July 9

If only the housing situation on Martha’s Vineyard were as perfect as the weather Sunday morning, Island Housing Trust (IHT) and its donors could pack up, stop asking for money, and go to the beach.

But while the sun was shining and a steady breeze kept brunchgoers comfortable under a tent at Farm Neck Golf Course, the housing crisis on Martha’s Vineyard loomed large. While IHT is making a dent with some innovative ideas, like the Hanover House collaboration with Martha’s Vineyard Hospital and Scott’s Grove in West Tisbury, the resounding theme from the morning’s speakers was that more needs to be done.

And IHT is doing it, Doug Ruskin, president of the IHT board of directors, said, with much of the donated money going directly to affordable and workforce housing. “Out of every dollar donated, only 9 cents goes to administration,” Ruskin said. “What that means is that 91 cents out of every $1 goes to housing. I am really proud of that.”

There was a lot to be proud of at Sunday’s brunch. IHT had a good year providing housing to teachers, public safety officials, and hospital workers — well on its way to a goal of providing 100 new units of housing by 2020, Ruskin said.

The emphasis on short-term rentals for visitors and a lack of year-round rentals for the workforce continues to be the predominant issue on Martha’s Vineyard. Ruskin pointed out that even the new airport director, who has a generous housing stipend as part of her compensation, arrived to find the house she planned to move into under construction, and not available.

Tony Pickett, CEO of Grounded Solutions Network, said finding affordable housing is not just an Island problem. Nationwide, 19 million households are spending at least half of their incomes on housing, which he called “the unprecedented threat to the stability of our communities.”

During his speech and during a conversation with The Times, Pickett provided some historical context to how the community trust model was created 50 years ago. It originated in Albany, Ga., by relatives of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who realized that African American farmers needed a way to own the farms they had been leasing. Pickett explained that community trust was based on a model used in Israel and adapted here to empower rural farmers to own and manage their own properties and actually make a living from the profits from selling farm goods. That model has since been adapted for home ownership, which is how organizations like Island Housing Trust came into existence.

“IHT is among the more innovative community land trust programs that we’re seeing, actually putting housing on the ground in the country today,” Pickett told The Times. He highlighted IHT’s innovative construction methods, energy efficiency (Hanover House is powered by solar panels), and financing ideas as models for other housing trusts to follow.

The statistics show Martha’s Vineyard still has a long way to go. There are 321 residents currently on waiting lists to purchase homes within their financial reach, according to a pamphlet created for Sunday’s event. More than 1,000 year-round residents and their families are waiting for rentals, including 400 children, according to IHT.

Pickett said it can take time for organizations like IHT to develop a track record, show that they have the capacity to sustain the model, and build confidence that they can produce housing, and that there are people waiting for that housing with the ability to pay the mortgages on them.

“I would urge folks to be patient in terms of expectations around that,” Pickett told The Times. “And as long as you have a long-term strategic plan to actually produce more units on an annual basis, I think you’re headed in the right direction.”

During his presentation, Pickett said there is hope, and IHT is an example of that hope. “It can be done. It is being done. And you can be part of the solution,” he said.

In its latest example of innovation, IHT is looking to turn a single-family home in Tisbury into four housing units, one of which will allow the original homeowner to stay and live the rest of his life on that property, Ruskin said: “That’s the kind of innovation we depend on.”

Once again, IHT shared a brief video produced by IHT and filmed by Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival, “Finding Our Way Home: A Year of Impact and Innovation,” that shared the triumph of several families who have benefited from projects done by Island Housing Trust — from a lottery won by a longtime family in Aquinnah to a family that was able to stay in West Tisbury because of Scott’s Grove. After the 11-minute video, there was barely a dry eye in the house.

“Anyone else crying?” said an emotional Ruskin asked the audience. “That’s why we do what we do.”

Elaine Miller, a member of the fundraising committee, made a final pitch to potential donors. She shared the ways that contributions can be made, joking at one point that credit cards and checks were acceptable forms of payment because she doubted people were carrying “the amount of cash we’re looking for.” Miller shared the many civic and community groups she and her husband, Howard, belong to and contribute to on the Island. “These organizations are the lifeline of our Island,” Miller said. “Without housing, the success and stability of all these organizations is in jeopardy.”

Updated to include more information and to clarify who produced the video.