There are consistent problems when it comes to housing needs on the Vineyard: an affordability gap, caused by high housing prices in a largely seasonal community paired with low wages, has long made it hard for year-round residents to rent or own housing on the Island.
But a draft report of a new housing needs assessment shows that some problems are shifting, as are potential solutions. There is increasing poverty on the Island and a rising number of older residents and single-member households, the study found, calling for an emphasis on rental units over home ownership.
More than a decade after the last Island housing needs assessment, the first phase of the Martha’s Vineyard Housing Needs Assessment was released in late December. The draft report was funded by all six Island towns as well as the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and the state Department of Housing and Commercial Development’s District of Local Technical Assistance Program.
A study committee hired housing, planning and community development consultant Karen Sunnarborg who gathered data for the first phase of the report. In a telephone interview with the Gazette this week, she explained that she used census data, market analysis, wages, employment patterns, housing characteristics and demographic and economic information to create an analysis of the Island’s housing situation.
This assessment is the first of three to come, Ms. Sunnarborg said. While this first draft looks at background research and market trends, the next document will look at existing organizations that provide or produce housing on the Island. The third and final document will look at future projections, and “what organizations as well as the information in the housing needs assessment suggests are the best avenues for meeting the affordable housing agenda going forward on the Island.”
The first phase provides a look at the problem. “The Island’s average weekly wage was 71 per cent of the state average, the median home price was 54 per cent above the state’s and the median rent exceeded the state’s by 17 per cent,” the report states. “This in essence describes the Vineyard’s affordable housing problem.”
Ms. Sunnarborg echoed that sentiment, adding that there is hidden poverty and people spend a large portion of their income on housing. “It’s very challenging to deal with this issue,” she said.
As of September 2012, the report said, the affordability gap was estimated at $213,500, which is the difference between what a median income-earning household could afford and the median house price. Statewide, the Dukes County affordability gap is second only to Nantucket, which has a gap of $646,000.
The last housing needs assessment was done in 2001 and updated in 2005. It called for the creation of 100 to 150 units of affordable housing a year, divided between year-round rental housing and affordable home ownership. But “actual production has fallen far short,” the assessment notes, with the creation of a total of about 300 units since then.
“One hundred to 150 [units] was just unreasonable, given all the challenges of producing affordable housing,” Ms. Sunnarborg said. She said the new goal of producing 50 units of affordable housing each year “still might be too ambitious.”
State goals for affordable housing are one half of one per cent of year-round affordable stock. On the Vineyard, that would be 40 units per year.
“I think as we get into the second and third piece [of the assessment] we’re going to be sharpening the pencil, so to speak, and revisiting the whole issue of goals,” she said. “We want to be ambitious, but we don’t want it to be unrealistic.”
A study committee consisting of representatives from each town, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and the regional housing authority has met since May of last year.
This first assessment includes a “very frank discussion about the needs,” study committee chairman Adam Wilson said, including not only a younger demographic looking for housing but also seniors and those in a welfare or poverty level status.
Mr. Wilson, the Aquinnah town administrator, concurred that 50 units a year may be an unrealistic goal. He said the study clearly demonstrated that the Island community has really only been able to generate about 30 rental units a year.
Moreover, “there was an emphasis in previous studies about number of units built, and ownership opposed to rental,” he said. But because of the huge gap between median income and home price, “it’s better to concentrate on rental than home ownership.”
The new study calls for 80 per cent rental and 20 per cent ownership. “There’s a significant change in thought pattern here,” he said.
Mr. Wilson also pointed to the study’s in depth analysis of Island towns, which highlighted differences when it comes to job availability, salary range, age and home prices.
“A great degree of diversity in the towns makes the affordable housing issue a very unique problem for each town in this entire Island community,” he said.
While goals may be adjusted later, the first report creates a clear look at Islandwide demographics: the Island has grown another 10 per cent since the 2010 U.S. census, it said. The population, now at 16,535, could reach 21,694 by 2020. The economy is dominated by service-oriented jobs, the study found, and “for most families the summer is a make-it or break-it period to secure sufficient income to last through the winter.”
The report found that Vineyard poverty levels were lower than the state average, but poverty is nonetheless on the rise here. The numbers of individuals or families in poverty almost doubled between 1990 and 2010, and almost tripled in the case of those 65 years of age or older. Poverty levels decreased, however, for children under 18 and female-headed households with children.
The Island has declining numbers of people 24 to 44 years of age, the report said, and a dramatic increase in the number of residents between the ages of 45 and 65. There is also an increasing number of smaller households, with one-third of all households consisting of individuals living alone.
“There is a pressing need for a great number of smaller units to accommodate a growing population of small households,” the report states.
More than one quarter of all households earned less than $35,000, including half of all people 65 years of age or older.
The report also highlights an underground economy, with 1,200 unreported jobs and $34 million in unreported wages. This economy was first reported in the Island Plan, which found “a large foreign workforce and regular utilization of contract labor,” with 16 unreported jobs for every 100 reported jobs. This underground economy was said to weaken community stability “as underground workers typically stay for only short periods of time and often save wages for use off-Island.”
The study found that about 5,000 seasonal workers come to the Island during the summer.
The report also singled out the seasonal phenomenon known as the Vineyard Shuffle, when residents leave winter rentals because they cannot afford the summer rent, having to find alternate accommodations. Based on a look at rental listings, the study says a home that can rent for $1,200 a month in the winter could go for $15,000 to $25,000 per week in the summer.
According to the 2010 census, more than two-thirds of new housing created between 1990 and 2010 was for seasonal or occasional use.
Ms. Sunnarborg said she has worked on about 50 similar studies, including studies in seasonal communities on the Cape and Islands. But “certainly Martha’s Vineyard has some real extremes,” she said, adding:
“I applaud [those] who are on the study committee, who continue to try to take this issue on and realize its importance to the vitality of the whole Island to have sociological and economic diversity.”