The good news for the Vineyard economy is that in the first three months of this year banks loaned some $240 million for new mortgages, well above the numbers for the previous two recession years.
Even better, said Chris Wells, president and chief executive officer of the Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank, most of that was for new purchases rather than refinancing of existing loans, the biggest part of the mortgage business during the downturn.
Yet at the same time, delinquencies — people who have fallen behind on their repayments — were at a record level, at least for his bank, which is the Island’s largest mortgage lender.
Those contrasting facts show as clearly as any the paradox of so-called economic recovery, which some have called the two-speed recovery, and which Mr. Wells prefers to call the “diverging economy.”
It is a national phenomenon but it’s perhaps even more apparent here, where the gap between wealthy summer residents and average year-round residents is far greater than in most other places.
“We have an economy that’s connected to big businesses, Wall Street-type businesses and . . . in the first four months of the calendar year, that part of the economy [the stock market] grew 7.2 per cent, to last Friday,” said Mr. Wells yesterday. “That’s pretty dramatic. That’s 22 per cent annualized. So there’s momentum in the market, companies are making more money, people in those companies, in the higher ranks, are earning a tremendous amount more than they were in 2008 and 2009. The people with stock options are feeling wealthy. Whereas if you own a small shop, or you’re a working person, you’re not getting pay raises, you are still subject to a nine per cent unemployment rate, a job market that is anemic. So I think the working person still is stretched thin.”
Mr. Wells sees the evidence all around, in the numbers and in the anecdotes.
Beginning with real estate. In the first quarter of this year, the towns of Chilmark, Edgartown, West Tisbury and also Oak Bluffs saw increased sales and median prices for homes.
But in Vineyard Haven sales numbers increased, but prices fell.
“In Edgartown, if you drive around, you see a lot of construction projects. Most of them are nonresident homeowners, along with a few speculative buildings,” Mr. Wells said.
“In Oak Bluffs when you drive around the main blocks in the Camp Ground you see a lot of homes being renovated. You don’t see the same in Vineyard Haven,” he said.
There are positive signs: Some rental agents say summer rental bookings are running quite strongly, at least as strongly as last year. Home sales numbers are up overall.
“But clearly buyers are still being very discriminating,” Mr. Wells said. “I spoke to someone the other day who said that if they got paid for every showing of a property, they would be wealthy. And delinquency for us is the true sign of what’s happening in the economy and I think that although there is some construction activity, it’s not at the level it was in prior years, and therefore unemployment is generally higher than it has been in previous years. Anecdotally, it seems the summer season last year ended abruptly and was not as strong as previous years. Maybe people just ran out of money sooner.”
Fielding Moore, president and chief executive officer of the Edgartown National Bank, a much smaller lender, had a somewhat rosier view of the Island economy. He said his bank’s rate of loans past due was not up this year. “I’m hearing from people that summer rental bookings are up. And retailers are saying things that are generally positive, especially compared with two years ago,” he said.
But he acknowledged that some on the Vineyard still are experiencing hard times. “I think governments are feeling poor because they’re not receiving the tax revenue they were, and so there isn’t as much of a safety net,” said Mr. Moore.
What safety net there is, is stretched.
Julia Burgess, executive director of Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, said demand for her organization’s wide range of social services is “off the charts.”
“We have more visits than ever. The numbers coming to our mental health center have doubled. Our New Paths recovery program [for people with substance abuse problems] has far more clients than we ever anticipated,” she said.
Some of that may be previously unmet need for the new program, Ms. Burgess said, but the number of domestic violence cases coming in is also at record levels. “We are overwhelmed. All our programs are overflowing, she said, and cited the figures on domestic violence, a major Island problem, which gets worse in the off-season as the pressures of eking out a living become more acute.
“For the period January to March last year, we went from 159 to 197 cases. For the same period this year it went from 182 to 210,” Ms. Burgess said. She also said she was hoped some of the new seasonal residents would begin to contribute to her organization during this, the 50th summer of its existence.
Evidence of the economic malaise shows up in all sorts of ways.
The Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank recently had its bond rating lowered by the ratings agency Standard and Poors from A to A minus, a move entirely due the weak property market, said land bank executive director James Lengyel.
“The land bank derives its revenue from one source only, real estate transactions. When revenues go down but expenses are stable, the inevitable result is a downgrade,” he said.
Mr. Lengyel said the downgrade is nothing to be alarmed about; the land bank is not planning to issue any bonds in the near future and has $100 million in cash set aside. The decline in revenues means only that some purchases might be delayed.
But for others the anemic economy is a much more serious problem, including Connie Teixeira, associate commissioner for the homeless with the county. “Things are not getting any better,” she said. “We have helped out more people this year, and it’s more families than chronically-homeless individuals now. These are people who work hard. They’re the ones who are up early and work as many hours as their employers can give them between October and May. Like a lot of people, they work two or three jobs, and if they lose one of those jobs, they really can’t make ends meet.”
So far this year she said her group has helped 10 families. “We sent one to Hyannis, another is awaiting shelter over in Falmouth. We have helped several more to other housing,” she said.
But that is getting harder to find too, as the downturn drags on. “Landlords are getting less tolerant because they have to make mortgages. At some point they have to let people go,” Ms. Teixeira said. “The chronically homeless individuals are still there. There are between 30 and 40, we believe. They squat in the houses of people who are not on the Island, they go house to house, friend to friend and sleep on couches.”
Through the winter, Island churches have helped feed these people, holding community suppers on different nights of the week.
The other salvation for the new poor is the Island Food Pantry, which this winter experienced its heaviest demand ever, providing food for 640 families, including 200 children.
But catering for the newly-poor, say all the welfare groups, is an increasing struggle, with state and federal assistance declining.
“Sometimes,” said Ms. Teixeira, “all we can do is send up a prayer.”