It is important that in the rush to designate the entire Island as a “district of critical planning concern” that we not forget two other issues that have long been neglected on the Vineyard. The first is the urgent need for affordable housing. The second is the need for much more active comprehensive planning so that we will not lurch from crisis to crisis as we have been doing, while growth around us has continued unabated. This letter deals only with the first.
This will not be a treatise on affordable housing. I shall try to just hit the high points that seem most relevant for us.
Definition: Affordable family housing is defined as some percentage of the median annual income (median=half above and half below) of the Island year-round residents. For our purpose, let us assume that definition is 60 per cent of a median family Island income of $50,000, or $30,000. That translates into a purchase price of approximately $100,000, or $750 per month in rent. If you don’t like these numbers, change them.
What is the supply? We can all agree that there is very little housing on the market at those prices or in year-round rentals. Twenty years ago, it was a different story. And every year the situation is tougher than the year before. That leads to the conclusion that some form of public and private action will be necessary, preferably both.
What should be the supply? Absent detailed studies, which the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) should make, I propose the standard that the Massachusetts legislature has established under the state’s “Comprehensive Permit Law,” also known as the “anti-snob” law, which kicks in if the community does not have at least 10 per cent of its housing supply as affordable. Very few Boston suburbs meet that standard. It is good enough for starters.
What should be our goal? I would suggest an initial goal of 500 units to be achieved over five years. Not in one site, however, which would inevitably be regarded as a ghetto.
Scattered sites are better. I would suggest no more than 10 in any one location -- and in all six towns. Each town would have a quota determined by its percentage of the Island’s year-round population.
Residency requirements. It is okay to insist on Island residence and year-round employment for a year or more. It seems wrong to me to require, in addition, residence in a particular town to qualify. We are, after all, one people.
How do we make such housing affordable? This is the key question and the hard part, but it is doable.
1 - Subsidy. In every industrialized nation, except the United States, it is a cardinal role of national policy that it is the responsibility of the state to provide funding for what they usually call “social housing.” Some do it better than others. From what I have seen, the Russians are the worst and the Scandinavians are the best.
The United States did not do a very good job with its public housing programs. (That’s a complex subject. Suffice it to say you would be hard pressed to find an urban neighborhood today that would welcome low-rent family public housing.)
Massachusetts, along with New York, was one of the more active states, but that has now disappeared.
So the Vineyard should not rely on such assistance, desirable as I believe it to be.
2 - Other cost elements. The major cost elements are a) cost of land, service with sewer, power, and water; b) cost of construction; c) interest rates; d) size of down payment; e) length of mortgage term; f) assessment and taxes, and g) incidental costs.
Though not easy, an affordable package can be put together.
3 - Site solution. Face it. Except for Oak Bluffs, the rest of the Island has three-acre zoning. Whatever the merits of three-acre zoning, and it has some, it pretty well prices out affordable housing.
I think we need a new zoning classification of “affordable housing” that could include substandard zoning lots, lots donated for affordable housing, and a required 20 per cent of any subdivision. Lot size for affordable housing should be determined by field requirements. Zoning variances from three acres should be encouraged.
Each town should be asked to identify sites for at least 10 lots a year for affordable housing.
I’ll get to NIMBY later. It is the real problem which we have so far avoided facing.
4 - Cost of construction. I have experimented with various ways of reducing construction cost. Most are complicated and require a large, assured volume.
There is one proven alternative: manufactured housing. It is possible to buy an 1,100-square-foot, 3-bedroom, 1.5-bath house on the mainland for $30,000. It would come fully equipped, all fixtures in place except for refrigerator.
The sites have to be made ready, including foundations, paths, and services, and for a modest additional cost can include an 1100-square-foot basement. It’s very attractive and it works. I have done it in the South Bronx and everybody says it is very successful. Its total cost of $60,000 is achievable.
The skills of laying the foundation can be readily learned and could be accommodated in a Habitat-type program.
5 - Interest rate, length of mortgage, size of down payment, and incidental costs. These should all be grouped together. Thanks to FNMA, LISC and the Community Reinvestment Act, much can be accomplished, provided you have the sites in hand and permission to build.
It is time enough to solve these problems after we have proven we are serious. In my view, trying to solve them first is a waste of time, however optimal it might seem.
If we can identify the sites, the rest is not too hard. So what is the problem? NIMBY.
It is an acronym that stands for “not in my backyard.” It is a way of saying it is a great idea, but I just don’t want it in my community. It is hard to believe how unpleasant otherwise nice people can become on this issue. I have seen how vile people can be. But I have also seen that it works and works well. It would have to be done very sensitively here. I am not sure we are up to it.
I think it is worth a try. And more about comprehensive planning later!
Edward J. Logue, a resident of West Tisbury and respected city planner, once headed the Boston Redevelopment Authority and the New York State Urban Development Corporation.