Affordable Housing’s Financial House

Although affordable housing has long been an issue on the Vineyard, through the decades and even centuries (accounts were published in this newspaper in the Nineteen Thirties about a critical shortage of affordable housing following the Great Depression), in the past decade the Island has been increasingly plagued by a shortage of stable year-round housing against a backdrop of skyrocketing real estate values. The shortage has directly affected the Island’s middle class workforce that includes teachers, nurses, bank tellers, farmers, fishermen, carpenters, artists, government workers and a wide variety of employees of small businesses and nonprofit community organizations. There are thousands of such people who live on the Vineyard, many of them young families who send their children to the public schools. There also are significant Brazilian and elderly communities here.

Numerous housing groups have grown up on the Island over the past 10 years in an attempt to address the problem, often described as a crisis, but in recent years the landscape of groups has grown confusing and cluttered. Government and private nonprofit groups have begun to comingle, sharing board members and creating open questions about conflicts of interest. In Edgartown voters agreed last year to sanction a town affordable housing trust that has the power to spend money without returning to voters for approval. Some of the people who sit on the trust are also on the board for the private, nonprofit Island Affordable Housing Fund and Island Housing Trust. And as private donations have dried up in the current economic recession, all the housing groups have begun to aggressively compete for Community Preservation Act money.

But noble causes cannot be an excuse for a lack of transparency, and sadly it is now known that the Island Affordable Housing Fund and its sister organization the Island Housing Trust have been less than transparent with their financial dealings. Working in concert, the two private nonprofits have raised millions of dollars in the past ten years to buy and build affordable housing. But the sudden announcement last week by the fund that it could no longer support the county rental assistance program is a huge red flag that there are problems in the fund’s financial house. Executive director T. Ewell Hopkins, who has been on the job for just thirty days, was blunt in his early assessment: the fund is overextended and carrying too much debt.

There are many questions right now surrounding the fund and the trust, beginning with the board of trustees, some of whom are business and financial leaders in the community. Why did they not see this coming; who has been monitoring the numbers? Clearly this crisis could have been avoided.

A full public accounting of the finances of both the trust and the fund is in order, especially since both organizations are now using public money from town Community Preservation funds. And town Community Preservation Committees should not release any more funds for use by the nonprofits until the central question has been answered:

Where has the money gone?