Community action and regional cooperation will be critical as the Island tackles new solutions to an old problem: affordable housing.
This was the consensus among community leaders who gathered at the Oak Bluffs Library Wednesday night to hear a presentation on the first draft of the Housing Needs Assessment Study.
“I think there’s a need for regional collaboration and some general sense that there are particular strategies that make sense for communities and the Island,” said Karen Sunnarborg, the consultant who led the study. “I do believe there should be, within each town, a mutual concern about what’s happening across the Island.”
About 30 people attended the meeting; a second session will be held Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at the Chilmark Community Center. During a presentation on the report, which will be done in three phases, Ms. Sunnarborg unpacked an array of economic data showing that the so-called affordability gaps make both home ownership and home rentals out of reach for many Islanders, and also that the demographic trends are shifting as the population ages and poverty levels rise.
During the discussion that followed, many town leaders agreed on the need for some kind of regional approach to the issue.
“There is a huge demand for people to come here in the summertime; it’s an absolutely fabulous place to live,” said Richard Toole of Oak Bluffs. “But there needs to be a more concentrated effort to come back to a smart growth effort in areas with the least environmental damage but which also make most sense . . . it’s going to require support from all the towns to do this.”
There was some discussion about the annual practice among Island towns of using Community Preservation Act monies to support rental subsidies and other forms of affordable housing. Mr. Kristal said Tisbury is considering adding a $50,000 line item to its town budget instead of seeking annual appropriations from the town Community Preservation Act fund for affordable housing subsidies.
“This is just a drop in the bucket,” he said. “If the Community Preservation Act goes away, we have no funding mechanism. Let’s fund this over the next couple years through the town budget and not go through the [community preservation committee].”
Oak Bluffs selectman Walter Vail agreed.
“I hope it’s still around [the CPA] and our voters will support it but I have no guarantee of that,” he said.
Oak Bluffs housing committee chairman Ewell Hopkins called the report sobering, especially when it comes to the aging population on the Island.
“From the numbers, I see that the need is focusing on our elderly population,” Mr. Hopkins said. “The poverty level these folks are having to live at, to me is a quiet or an often unseen reality of so many people’s lives on this Island.”
David Vigneault, executive director of the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority, which among other things administers rental assistance vouchers for Islanders, said the first phase of the report confirms what he is seeing: scarce availability of decent, affordable rental housing. “Timing and luck and availability play way too much a part in it,” he said. “It’s tough, especially when you get to large-size houses, of which there are fewer to find.”
And he pinpointed another trend. He said the county housing authority has seen high turnover rates in recent years because “folks are finding leases in good faith and then four or five months later they don’t have those jobs. Income and housing are incredibly tied in a pretty bad dance right now.”
Mr. Vigneault said there are around 150 Island families who do not have physical addresses. Their children are enrolled in schools, but increasing numbers of families are doubling up and moving around, he said.
“That number has tripled in the last couple of winters,” he said.
The report also found that homelessness is on the rise on the Vineyard. The Rev. Richard Rego, pastor of the Trinity United Methodist Church in Oak Bluffs, said Island clergy are keenly aware of the problem. Churches have a discretionary fund to assist people in need, he said.
“The number one increase we’ve seen over the last year has been giving money to people in order to keep their rentals,” Reverend Rego said. “We’re losing the ability to be able to help people who rent, even at this level.”
“Eventually when [the fund] is exhausted, there’s really nowhere [for people to go], there’s no plan,” he added.
On the issue of zoning Doug Ruskin, president of the Vineyard branch of Habitat for Humanity, suggested that the study explore multi-family units to help address “an enormous problem.”
“This is an Island where almost everybody you talk to likes single-family dwellings, and scattered-site housing is what we’ve been building, and it’s barely a drop in the bucket,” he said. “I’m not talking about six-story apartment buildings necessarily, but there has to be a way to approach this.”
But Christina Brown, a member of the Edgartown conservation commission and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, said she thinks more public education is needed about the flexible zoning tools already in place in many towns to make more affordable housing possible.
“As a community this Island needs a lot more affordable community housing or we will change as a community,” she said. “The diversity of people who live here, who make our lives more fun, more interesting, more meaningful, will diminish. We need the public education and outreach to make people say, Hey, I’m going to take advantage of this.”
Mr. Ruskin noted that the report, which was funded by the six Island towns, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and a state grant, is rich with information and data.
“This is probably the most comprehensive study with enormous amounts of information,” he said. “If it doesn’t get disseminated, we have not made the best use of the money.”