Open House for Debate

Tuesday’s lottery for seven affordable homes in West Tisbury was a poignant reminder of the struggle ordinary workers have just to build a stable life on this Island. Though many more than seven qualified — with rigorous financial preparations made — it came down to the luck of the draw.

The struggle to maintain housing here also confronts the elderly, young people, and those who are capable of meeting rent but not full ownership. That the Island Affordable Housing Fund was able to raise a million dollars in one weekend less than two years ago, and even in the midst of last year’s financial collapse, another six-hundred-and-fifty thousand dollars in July, indicates that the cause has broad support. Year-round and seasonal Islanders alike want to help relieve their neighbors’ anxiety about something so basic as shelter.

So when news came in September that the fund could not meet its commitment to subsidize the rental housing program, it was distressing not only to those tenants and landlords who placed their faith in the program, but also to the supporters of the fund who have given so generously. It was the unhappy job of the fund’s new director, T. Ewell Hopkins, to reveal the “artistic” accounting that had led to the crisis, and to take difficult action to address the problems. He appealed to towns to take on the rental housing subsidies. He laid off all the employees. Last week he announced the exit of several board members, including the chairman and vice chairman. He has canned the expensive summer fundraiser, sworn off new debt and signalled a more conservative approach to new projects.

Mr. Hopkins calls this a time for innovation. He will meet anyone with an opinion; he wants to hear what the community believes should be the fund’s priorities in these straitened times. Supporters and critics alike have a real opportunity to be a part of the solution at this moment, as Mr. Hopkins prepares a report about the fund’s first ten years in business and setting goals for the next.

This is a time for robust discussion of financial details and of broad philosophies in place for affordable housing here, and everyone’s voice is relevant. The fund’s sister nonprofit, the Island Housing Trust, likewise is reviewing its priorities and its governance policies and this past week invited the public to its annual general meeting. Few attended, making for a short meeting but also a missed opportunity for critics to hash out whether this time is simply a slowdown, or if there’s a need for any shift in strategy.

One man not so lucky in Tuesday’s lottery sighed that he would try again when four homes in Tisbury are allotted later this year, but after that, he feared, the home opportunities would be long off, as development has slowed. Another couple was admittedly more choosy and said they were unlikely to go for a Lambert’s Cove home; what that meant for their housing situation, they were not sure. These Islanders and others are trying hard to carefully plan their futures, and it will help us all to have clear agreement on how the community can help.