Housing Fund Initiative Advances Up-Island

Chilmark Voters Face Decision

By KATHERINE WILEY

Over the past few years, members of Chilmark's affordable housing committee have had the hunch that citizens feel their town could use more affordable housing.

After distributing a survey on housing approaches this winter, they now have the numbers to back their theory up.

Eighty-five per cent of respondents to the survey agreed on the need for more affordable housing in Chilmark. Responses came from as far away as Hawaii, Georgia and California, with seasonal and year-round residents replying at equal rates.

The committee sent the multiple-choice questionnaire - which also encouraged people to write comments - to 1,319 Chilmark taxpayers. More than 35 per cent of those responded.

"All Island towns need more affordable housing for young families. A community serving only seasonal needs, nearly vacant in winter and populated by elderly retirees (which we ourselves are) is no place to live. We need the variety and the life blood of children, dogs, young parents and young singles," one year-round resident wrote.

The eight-question survey also asked taxpayers whether they own rental property or property that could be used as rental property and what it would take to get them to rent it year-round.

The survey results are timely, since at a special town meeting this week, Chilmark voters will consider participating in the Community Preservation Act, a measure that could pump a sizable chunk of cash toward affordable housing.

Under the act, money is raised through a surcharge of up to three per cent on property taxes; a percentage of this money will then be matched by state funds. Communities that adopt the act must use the funds they raise for three categories: affordable housing, preserving open space and recreation and historic preservation.

For Chilmark, this could mean more than $145,000 per year. But opponents caution that the amount of state funds available has not yet been determined.

The special town meeting will be held Wednesday, March 21 at 7:30 p.m. in the Chilmark Community Center. For the act to go into effect, voters will have to approve it twice; first on the town meeting floor, and again when it appears on the ballot in the town's spring election.

The affordable housing committee plans to present their survey results at this week's meeting, some of which won't come as a surprise.

Take for example, the fact that 66 per cent of respondents stated that the town should make youth lots more available.

With its roots stretching back to the early 1970s in Chilmark, the youth lot program distributes parcels of land to qualified young people at low costs. Last year, three pieces of land were sold as youth lots.

"The youth lot program has been very, very successful," said Edward T. Kenyon, chairman of the planning board. "I don't think it's the answer to Chilmark's problem and the Island's problem, but it certainly is one step in the right direction. We have a lot of people to show as examples of how it can work.

"I expect that, because they know that it's a program that's in being and it has been successful, so everybody likes it," Mr. Kenyon said. "It's attractive because the people we're getting are people who are known in the community and are part of the community and have made a contribution already to the community. All those who have gotten lots in the past have born that out. These are all people who, but for this program, would not be able to stay in Chilmark."

Ownership and rentals followed close behind youth lots, with 60 per cent and 59 per cent of people feeling these should be more available.

The Community Preservation Act could provide the funding for programs like these, since each town that participates decides how to spend its money.

"It would allow us to have money to spend to develop future youth lots or future resident home sites, and it would allow us to have money to develop a rental subsidy plan, which might allow some of the summer properties to become year-round rentals. There's certainly a possibility of a combination of land that would go into conservation and to youth lots," said Chilmark selectman Warren Doty.

If it passes, the town would establish a committee of between five and nine members to develop proposals on how to spend funds. Before being enacted, these proposals would have to be approved at town meeting.

The survey also demonstrated that some housing solutions might be right under residents' noses. Although one-third of the respondents reported that they own rental property in Chilmark, only 19 per cent rent the units on a year-round basis.

But according to the survey results, getting people to rent year-round might take a little encouragement. Many people indicated that they might be willing to rent year-round in certain circumstances; for example, if they received tax breaks, if the units were winterized or if they could help a Chilmark individual or family.

Others suggested that easing zoning restrictions might make creating affordable housing easier.

But regardless of whether the Community Preservation Act passes, affordable housing in Chilmark is going to take a lot of work. "The community will suffer if we cannot provide housing for our children and grandchildren and teachers. Will we be able to attract the kind of teachers we want if they can't live in town?" asked Zelda Gamson, the chairman of the affordable housing committee.

After presenting its findings at the special town meeting, the committee also plans to report to the planning board to help them develop an affordable housing strategy for Chilmark. "Our interest is to try to see what opportunities there are for affordable housing, and I think the planning board is unanimous in its view that we need it in Chilmark," Mr. Kenyon said. "We're looking for ways to do it. It's a complicated problem and if there are ways to do it that don't cost a lot of money, that's the first thing that we're going to look at."

In the end, keeping housing affordable in Chilmark might be the key to helping the town retain its character.

"That's why I've gotten involved in this, because I don't see it as a handout for anybody, I see it as a support for the kind of community I want to live in," Ms. Gamson said.

"I especially feel strongly about economic diversity. I think the growing inequality in our country is just appalling, and to have that represented in the town that I live in I find to be a personal affront," she said.

"I love the fact that Chilmark has well-diggers and retired philosophers and teachers and carpenters and real estate brokers. We're all mixed together, the people who work with their hands and their heads, the people who inherited, the people who have worked for their money. It just makes for a very rich place. Chilmark has its share of characters. It would be a pity to lose our characters."

At the special town meeting, voters will also decide whether to release $750,000 in state Chapter 70 money to the regional high school. The educational aid was awarded by the state after the school had already developed its budget last year.