A new neighborhood is quietly taking root in West Tisbury. There’s a house with an older couple living in it, another one with a mom and two elementary school-aged kids, and a third house owned by a couple who has a newborn baby. On any given weekday, the playground at the West Tisbury School seems just a stone’s throw away.
“Do you hear those kids’ voices down there?” developer Jim Feiner said on a recent spring morning. “We have kids in two of these houses, and they’ll be able to walk to their school. That was my inspiration.”
The three homes were built under a new affordable housing plan developed by Mr. Feiner, a Chilmark real estate agent and affordable housing advocate.
After nine years of planning, fundraising and building, Mr. Feiner’s inspiration now has dirt on mudroom floors and kids walking along a path to the West Tisbury School.
The project is the first of its kind in West Tisbury and includes two homes that were restricted to affordable housing and one that was sold at market rate. A town zoning bylaw allows density to exceed minimum zoning by special permit if affordable homesites are involved. The unique model called for the sale of the market rate house to cover the construction costs of the two affordable homes. The two affordable homes were sold for $350,000 to Owen and Erica Maloney, and Patti Roads. The market rate house was sold to Albert and Linda Fischer for $580,000.
The underlying land is held by the Island Housing Trust, which ensures that the restrictions under the bylaw are met.
But getting to this point wasn’t easy. From upset neighbors worried about bringing affordable housing to the area and increased road usage, to environmental concerns and financial constraints, the project proceeded in fits and starts.
“A true success would have been that we built the houses and we would not have lost money,” Mr. Feiner said. “The goal was never to make money but to create good housing opportunities for the least amount of money possible. In the big picture what I think this is saying to people out there is if you have the initiative, there are ways of making things happen.”
The property is 3.1 acres with two of the three acres conserved to protect a frost bottom and rare moth habitat. Mr. Feiner and friend Niki Patton bought the land for $485,000 in 2005. Ms. Patton was to be one of the eventual homeowners in the development but due to various reasons she decided to leave the project.
When Mr. Feiner first approached the neighbors, he thought they would all be on board.
“I said this is what we want to do and I think it’s a great idea,” he recalled. “I was unrealistic about my expectations. I thought the majority of the people were going to be excited, but very few were excited. They were very defensive about putting houses on the road.”
Today, he hopes the neighbors will see that the houses meet a greater good.
“Hopefully at the end of the day they’ll feel like these houses are better than some summer home that doesn’t really address the needs of the community,” he said.
Mr. Feiner did not intend to build the houses himself, but with the ebb and flow of the economy and construction costs, builders were reticent about joining the project. But then Farley Pedler came forward and offered to make it happen at an affordable rate.
“We could have never done this without Farley; he was so much more than just the builder,” Mr. Feiner said. “He was the linchpin.”
Mr. Pedler gave the applicants the opportunity to personalize their houses, which “on the face sounds like a wonderful thing,” but in reality created “a huge level of challenge from a developer and builder perspective,” Mr. Feiner said. “Every decision along the way that we had to make so this could be a little more energy efficient, a little more special, and we almost always said yes.”
Then there was the frost bottom issue.
“People tried to make things difficult for us,” Mr. Feiner said. “A frost bottom was declared on the property so we preserved two-thirds of the three acres and that was expensive and created some challenges. Ultimately it didn’t sink us, but I thought it was going to.”
There was also the financial burden of having to “borrow, beg and steal” to have the houses financed. The project was funded privately by Mr. Feiner and private low-interest loans.
“I have a few private lenders who were really nice to give to this, and I leveraged myself,” Mr. Feiner said. “To have all that debt paid off is wonderful.”
Mr. Feiner said he would develop another similar affordable housing project but only “under the right terms and conditions.”
“I’ve learned a lot from this project,” he said.
Taking advantage of the West Tisbury zoning bylaw is one way of addressing the affordable housing issues on the Island, Mr. Feiner said, but a more comprehensive approach is needed.
“As a community we should find a way of securing some land for our future and we need to be active about it,” he said. “There’s going to be more and more people displaced.
“We need to find a long term solution to the problem of affordable housing,” he continued. “Is it money? It could be. Is our zoning so restrictive we need to find ways to change it? Maybe. It’s one possibility.”
Whatever the answer, action is needed now, he said.
“As a community we need to make some difficult decisions about what we want to see in the future,” he said.