Land swap for veterans housing proposed

Select board members don’t recall a pledge of $750,000 for affordable housing.

The Oak Bluffs select board struggled to recall whether they had approved a request for $750,000 to help fund affordable housing project Southern Tier. — Rich Saltzberg

Affordable housing was in the spotlight during the Oak Bluffs select board meeting Tuesday afternoon, with board members citing concerns of sites and project costs.

Affordable Housing Committee member Mark Leonard requested a change for a proposed veterans supportive housing project from its approved 4.6-acre, town-owned parcel on 519 County Road to 50 Bellevue Ave., citing issues with the title to the property on County Road.

The project has been in the works for over a year, and was approved by voters at November’s town meeting.

The 3.4-acre Bellevue lot, currently owned by the now defunct Oak Bluffs Resident Homesite Committee — the town’s first attempt at affordable housing, dating back to the 1980s — has a clear title with no property restrictions, said Leonard. The new site “does still fit the need and mission of the veterans supportive program,” he said. Leonard said the Bellevue location will be “a lot less,” with 10 housing units rather than the 30 units initially proposed. 

Select board vice chair Gail Barmakian said she has “a number of issues with [the change] … To me, location is one of the most important things when we decide on this,” she said, emphasizing that the town approved the project as presented at the time, at the County Road location. “Anything that changes that is, to me, more major than just going forward with something without any oversight or checkpoint. Location is quite important. It is not a decision to be taken lightly, at all.” 

Barmakian said she would like to know exactly what the title issues from 519 County Road consist of, and questioned whether the select board even has the authority to approve the change of location. 

Town administrator Deborah Potter said the new proposed site has not been “declared surplus,” as the approved lot had been. 

Leonard said that the Bellevue lot doesn’t need to be declared as surplus, since it’s already under title for the resident home committee, to which Potter responded, “any disposition of land has to be” deemed as such. “I think a step has been skipped in this process,” she said.

Select board chair Ryan Ruley said that he is “skeptical” about making a decision without voter input. Ultimately, the board opted to table the agenda item and consult town counsel about the legality of the transfer. 

Meanwhile, during a joint meeting between the select board and the Oak Bluffs affordable housing committee, the two boards discussed a requested grant of $250,000 from the town’s housing trust to Island Housing Trust and Boston-based Affirmative Investments to cover soft costs related to the affordable housing project in the Southern Tier. That project was made logistically possible by the recent “doughnut hole” land swap signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker on Tuesday. Leonard said the project has received $200,000 from the Oak Bluffs Community Preservation committee (CPC) for strictly hard costs. 

An additional $750,000 is needed for the project, said Leonard, which was included in the initial proposal by IHT and Affirmative Investments. 

“I didn’t know that a $750,000 request from the town was part of [that] proposal,” said Barmakian. “I have major issues with that.” She added that if she had known, she would not have voted to approve it in January. 

Leonard stated that the request was “specifically laid out” in the funding strategies per the construction proposal, to which Barmakian replied, “I just don’t remember that.” 

Potter said she would have to return to the RFP regarding the project, as she also did not “recall” the request for the additional funds. Potter said if the funds were given, it would bring down the balance of the town funds.

“Most of us are sitting here going, ‘What did that page say?’”’ said select board member Jason Balboni regarding the approved project. However, he said he did remember seeing the $750,000 request. 

Island Housing Trust CEO Philippe Jordi confirmed that the proposal did indeed involve the $750,000 request per its predevelopment $1 million budget. 

Additionally, Jordi told the boards, the receipt of the funds from the town would be “important in terms of leveraging a lot more money” — $18 million from the state that will be needed to execute the project. 

Barmakian asked if the town will be reimbursed for the $750,000 if the project manages to receive the $18 million. Jordi explained that the funding “is not structured as a loan”; IHT will also not be getting reimbursed for its approximate $2 million contribution to the project, and will be taking on the responsibility of covering inflated costs for the project. 

In total, “this is a $24 million project,” said affordable housing committee member Pete Bradford, acknowledging concerns of “depleting” the town’s trust. But, he emphasized, “This is a $750,000 contribution to build 45 apartments.” 

Bradford suggested using revenue from short-term rental tax to help alleviate the pressure. Noting the increasing amount of collections on those rentals, he said the town should consider distributing it to affordable housing. 

“I think it’s a good discussion for another day,” said Ruley, “but I don’t disagree with you.” 

Select board members briefly mulled over the possibility of offering less than requested, with Barmakian vehemently opposed to making any decision at the meeting. 

The board decided to table the discussion and possibly vote on it at its August 23 meeting.