Housing Crisis Spurs Initiatives

Grim Housing Needs Assessment Underscores Important Search to Ease Lack of Affordable Shelter on the Vineyard


Twenty-eight million dollars.

It's less than five per cent of the $6 billion Vineyard housing market. It's only $6 million more than the recent $22 million sale of the former Sharpe house in Edgartown. It's but a $233 contribution from each seasonal and year-round resident.

But for the nearly 2,000 Islanders who struggle to manage expensive rents and the high cost of living, tackling the Vineyard's affordable housing problem means so much more than dollars and cents.

Yet $28 million is the unavoidable price tag attached to repairing the affordable housing crisis caused by a real estate market that has far outpaced the average Islander's wages in the last decade.

This cost coupled with innumerable hours of work and innovative zoning bylaws could make much more than a dent in the affordable housing problem.

John Ryan, a consultant hired by the Island Affordable Housing Fund to prepare a housing needs assessment on the Vineyard, estimated these factors could meaningfully combat the Island housing crunch by providing 190 below-market and 40 market-rate rental households in addition to 237 affordably priced homes for long-term Island residents.

The deadline to provide affordable rentals for the estimated 230 Island renters who pay more than 35 per cent of their income to rent a home with no year-round option is quickly approaching. It would demand the development of between 50 and 75 new or converted rental units in the next three to five years.

Along with these rental units, Mr. Ryan's plan calls for providing opportunities to own a home for the 237 long-term renter households earning between $40,000 and $75,000 a year, residents who could never manage a down payment and mortgage for the median priced $375,000 Vineyard home.

While the time line might seem unattainable, activists know they must compensate for a decade that brought the creation of 3,700 unaffordable homes and fewer than 70 new rental units or affordable opportunities to purchase a house.

Affordable housing activists know the problem can and must be solved.

"I think we've reached a hinge point. There is beginning to be a consensus among a large part of both seasonal and year-round Vineyarders that affordable housing is the ballast of the community. Without it, our stability is gone," said John Abrams, a home builder and chairman of the Island Affordable Housing Fund.

IAHF advocates mapped out plan of action and for many towns and organizations, the journey has begun:

* The Island Affordable Housing Fund already received an $800,000 commitment to subsidize a 10-home cluster development.

* The Regional Housing Authority owns and manages 42 affordable, year-round rental properties for Islanders making no more than the county's $40,000 mean income. The housing authority also launched a rental conversion program, which transforms homes rented seasonally into year-round rentals and subsidizes the cost for the renter. The conversion program, which assists tenants earning up to 120 per cent of the median income, has placed 14 families in year-round rentals this year.

* The Dukes County Housing Authority just introduced a no-interest rehabilitation loan program for property owners willing to bring rental properties up to livable standards.

* Habitat for Humanity finished its first home in the spring of 2000 and plans to build two more this year.

* Island Elderly Housing opened 27 new apartments for low-income seniors. Currently 90 per cent of the Island's elderly population in need of subsidized housing is served.

* Island businesses committed $500,000 to revive and maintain the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority.

* Many Island towns have stepped to bat as well. Edgartown and Vineyard Haven awarded youth lots to town residents this year. Edgartown is actively considering ownership and rental developments on 12 acres of town land devoted to affordable housing. Chilmark is busy fine-tuning plans to take advantage of matching state funds provided by the town's passage of the Community Preservation Act last spring.

While expansion of current initiatives is essential, new programs could also aid the progress of building an affordable housing stock.

* Low income home tax credits allow citizens to create a pool of equity by writing down the cost of development in return for maintaining affordable rents for residents earning less than 60 per cent of median household income.

* Towns could follow West Tisbury's lead in loosening zoning restrictions for those willing to create affordable year-round supplemental apartments.

* The IAHF is raising funds to provide 205 soft, second mortgages to help underwrite down payments and closing costs as a long-term, low-interest second mortgage.

* Organizations are convincing owners of homes slated for demolition to donate the homes for relocation.

* Towns could use community preservation funds and other local funds to underwrite the cost of homes, with the promise of long-term affordability and resale limitations.

* A recession might offer towns and affordable housing authorities the opportunity to channel tax delinquency and foreclosure sale funds to affordable housing stock.

The Island's unique cost of living and real estate structure put the weight of the financial responsibility on Island residents, town governments and Island businesses. Government funding criteria that accompany state and federal grants often fail to match Island needs. Most subsidy programs serve renters earning less than 80 per cent of median income.

"But people earning between 120 and 140 are also in a bind. Rents are high enough that it's prohibitive," said Philippe Jordi, executive director of the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority.

In addition, the Department of Housing and Urban Development's estimates for Island rent are unrealistically low. Many grants require those receiving aid to pay 30 per cent of their income to these skewed rent estimates.

"In general, there is not that much federal funding for family housing. What is available is very complicated," said Dukes County Regional Housing Authority chairwoman Juleann VanBelle.

"Most government assisted programs want at least 30 units. They want economy of scale," Ms. VanBelle explained. "And there is very little land in towns that could actually tolerate that volume of development."

Nationally, communities are abandoning multi-unit government subsidized housing options for mixed income neighborhoods.

"For many years, the prevailing model was ‘projects:' large, dense developments of high rise apartments full of low-income people. This led to ghettoization, stigmatization and a host of social problems," Mr. Abrams said.

And the newest craze in housing assistance legislation is Chapter 40B, a law which relieves developers of zoning restrictions in exchange for protecting a small number of homes in the development for affordable housing. But many Island affordable housing advocates remain skeptical of Chapter 40B benefits.

"We are starting to get a lot of developers looking at that with a gleam in their eye. It's cloaked as anti-snob zoning, but it's really legislation for developers. There's only a thin layer for affordable housing," Ms. VanBelle said, explaining that while a few homes go to folks who make well below the median income, the rest of the homes in the developments sells for high prices and attract off-Island home buyers.

"The state is not doing us any favors," she added, noting that affordable housing is also necessary for those making 80 to 140 per cent of median income, but that 40B developments typically do not provide for that.

"The government makes blanket policies that do not travel down to the local level. They are not based in reality," Ms. VanBelle said.

But while advocates lobby for change to age-old laws and mentalities about affordable housing, they call for Islanders, towns and businesses to work for tangible and productive solutions to the Island's affordable housing crunch.

"Those who love the Vineyard have done a splendid job preserving open space and conserving land; as we continue those efforts, we have to commit the same degree of support to people conservation for the preservation of our community," Mr. Abrams said.