Report Conveys Duality in State of Housing Crisis

By James Kinsella
Gazette Senior Writer

Market forces continue to outpace efforts on the Vineyard to create affordable rental and permanent housing.

Further, housing advocates say that while some people who could not find housing in 2001 may have left the Vineyard, those who stayed likely have watched the gap widen between the wages they earn and the houses they hope to buy.

These are among the preliminary findings of an update of the comprehensive housing assessment commissioned by the Island Affordable Housing Fund in 2001. That study for the first time provided hard data and statistics about the growing housing crisis on the Vineyard.

The updated findings were released last week.

While the latest report is a testament to the continuing difficulty of finding affordable housing on the Vineyard, it also draws attention to the promise of several initiatives.

"If it were not for the work going on to create a supply of affordable community housing, neither long-term renters or young Island households would have much reason to hope for a future on Martha's Vineyard," the report states. "But much has been done and that is cause for both hope and celebration."

Among the efforts under way is the push to adopt the Community Preservation Act in four of the Island towns and to create a Community Housing Bank dedicated to generating money for affordable housing.

The update of the Martha's Vineyard Housing Needs Assessment was conducted by the consultant John Ryan of Development Cycles, who authored the original report four years ago.

The 2001 assessment found that a growing segment of the Vineyard population was finding it difficult to buy a home on the Island. A problem that had been limited to young people, single parents, new arrivals and those with limited job skills had expanded to a majority of people who grew up on the Island, many skilled and well-paid workers and older residents earning a moderate income.

In the intervening four years, the updated report concludes, 95 affordable home ownership opportunities have been created on the Vineyard, with 83 year-round rentals established. Another 165 units are in construction, have been permitted or are going through litigation. Those units add up to 343.

The mix includes the creation of 60 new homes; the rehabilitation of 68 others; 48 homes under construction, and 117 permitted for building. Also local assistance is providing 50 tenants with year-round rentals in what had been seasonally rented property.

But the gains in housing are only one part of the story.

The report also shows that between 2001 and 2004 the median home price for all homes sold increased at a rate more than 10 times faster than wages earned.

"The market forces driving up prices on Martha's Vineyard have only accelerated the affordability gap that existed in 2001," the report says.

According to the report, the median price of all homes sold on the Island (including single-family, two to three family homes, and condominiums) has risen 80.2 per cent - from $277,500 in 2001 to $500,000 last year. The median price last year for single-family homes was $560,000. Furthermore, three-quarters of the Vineyard's single-family homes now sell for more than $385,000.

Among the major problems people confront when trying to buy into the Vineyard housing market is the increased income required since just three years ago to carry the costs of a home, and the larger down payments that buying a home requires.

"To buy a starter home on Martha's Vineyard today requires a household income of over $100,000," the report says. "That's up from about $65,000 just three years ago."

A family with the Vineyard's median income, which can afford to put 30 per cent of its income toward mortgage payments, property taxes and insurance, would face a down payment of $325,000 to buy the median home. That's up from $187,500 on the same calculation in 2001. A median income renter, meanwhile, looking to buy his first home in the lowest 25 per cent of the market, and able to use 30 of his income toward housing costs, would have to come forward with a down payment of $220,000. That's up from $130,000 from the same calculation in 2001.

High housing costs are not the only hurdle facing Island residents.

Based on surveys completed in the last week of February, Mr. Ryan found that groceries here cost 9.1 per cent more than in Massachusetts as a whole; heating oil is 8.2 per cent higher; gasoline is 27.4 per cent higher; and propane is 35.4 per cent higher.

According to the 2001 report, about 750 families said they were prepared to leave the Vineyard if they could not secure affordable housing.

No comparable statistic was included in the updated study, and those who responded to the question four years ago cannot be tracked because the survey was anonymous. But Abbe Burt, a member of an ad hoc committee working to convince voters in Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, Tisbury and West Tisbury to adopt the state Community Preservation Act, said her gut tells her the numbers have increased.

Towns that adopt the Community Preservation Act use a surtax on property taxes to fund community needs, including affordable housing.

Phillippe Jordi, executive director of the Island Housing Trust, also suspects the number of people who cannot afford a Vineyard home has grown: "You have to already own to buy into this market," Mr. Jordi said.

John Abrams, who is chairman of the Island Affordable Housing Fund, said the Community Preservation Act and housing bank initiatives could generate an additional $5 million a year for housing. He said the $5 million represents real money on an Island where much already has been done with smaller sums.

Ms. Burt, a former real estate broker, said the sharpest increases in recent years have in fact come at the low end of the market, where potential homebuyers are struggling to buy in.

She also said the housing market is effectively pushing out entire segments of the Island population, including young families. Between 2000 and 2004, she said, the total number of Vineyard students fell six per cent to 2,448. She said the student population had been growing for at least 10 years prior to 2000.

The replacement of year-round with seasonal households, Ms. Burt said, signifies "the erosion of our community and the makeup of our culture." She added that what draws people to the Island is not just its beauty but also the people who live here.

"It's the authenticity of the people who work the land and the water. It's the heart and soul of the place," she said.