Hard Numbers for Island Crisis: Report on Affordable Housing Provides Stark New Statistics

By MANDY LOCKE

Consultant John Ryan this week provided firm statistical underpinnings for what Islanders have known anecdotally for years as they watch the struggles of friends and neighbors: The housing crunch on Martha's Vineyard has become a full-blown crisis.

The Island Affordable Housing Fund hired Mr. Ryan of Development Cycles to study the Vineyard's affordable housing problem.

"We thought it would take time and money to learn what we already knew," John Abrams, chairman of the Island Affordable Housing Fund board of directors, said Monday night at the Grange Hall during a forum at which Mr. Ryan presented the housing needs assessment.

"We're learning there's a lot we didn't know," Mr. Abrams continued.

The theme of shocked discovery continued throughout the evening as the 70 people in attendance - most of them already grappling with the affordable housing problem - gasped and sighed as Mr. Ryan rattled off statistics describing how the Island population and real estate mix shifted through the last decade.

The Vineyard's year-round population pushes 15,000, while the Island hosts the same number of homes. While this seems a perfect fit, the fact that 8,400 of these homes belong to seasonal dwellers puts the problem in perspective. Year-round residents own but 4,600 of these homes, and the rental home pool has just 1,850 residences.

The numbers prove the housing problem is not simply one of affordability, but also of availability.

And the development boom of the last decade did little to curb the need for homes for working Vineyarders. Since 1990, 2,700 seasonal homes were built on Vineyard soil compared to 1,000 owner-occupied homes. Yet during that decade, only 50 new, year-round rental apartments and 20 youth lots for affordable ownership became available.

And the next decade has an even grayer forecast. The baby boomers - who scooped up homes in the 1970s and 1980s for a third to half of their current market value - are retiring from their Island jobs in health care, education and skilled labor at a rate of 35 to 50 people per year. Mr. Ryan expects that rate to double in the decade ahead.

"Who is going to take their jobs when they leave?" Mr. Ryan asked.

"Folks who can afford to pay $300,000 to $400,000 are not going to take over essential service jobs," he added, noting the current starting price of single-family homes on the Vineyard.

The need for service industry workers and skilled labor will only intensify as those retired baby boomers multiply. Mr. Ryan projects that the population of people age 55 and older will reach 6,000 in 2010, up from 2,400 in 1990.

All of these facts and figures speak nothing of the costs of housing compared to the typical wages of the average renter.

The average annual income of the Vineyard renter is $26,000 - 27 per cent below the state average. And the median renter pays $1,000 per month - which is 30 per cent higher than state figures.

Of the Island's renters, 660 pay at least 35 per cent of their income for rent - a burden which the state of Massachusetts considers to be a hardship.

Even more frightening is the cost of the entry-level homes - teetering around $350,000 - which is 80 per cent higher than the state average.

In other words, the average renter would need to make four times his salary to enter the Vineyard's housing market.

High rent and low wages coupled with the astronomical price of the Vineyard starter home means that the Island population of renters remains renters for longer periods of time. More than two-thirds of the nearly 2,000 Island renters have lived on the Island for at least five years, while half have lived on the Vineyard for 10 or more years.

A large portion of these long-term renters have shuffled from place to place during their stay. Roughly 40 per cent of the renters do not have a year-round lease.

"The people responding that they have lived in cars through the summer was enough for a percentage," Mr. Ryan said, shaking his head.

When Mr. Ryan paused to gauge the reactions of the audience, one woman fought back tears and said, "These graphs are so discouraging, I feel I should move right now."

No one denied the grimness of Mr. Ryan's findings. He did, however, suggest some solutions to ease the current crisis - from encouraging landlords to rent their homes year-round to moving homes slated for demolition.

Audience members experienced a large dose of sticker shock when Mr. Ryan said a mix of programs aimed to provide 190 below-market and 40 market-rate rental housing units as well as 237 affordably priced homes would come with a public cost of more than $28 million. But viewing this dollar amount next to the $500 million in new real estate developed on the Vineyard each year, he said, the bottom-line seems attainable.

Mr. Abrams said he hopes Monday night's discussions will initiate a series of forums and workshops aimed at the affordable housing problem.

"Affordable housing is people conservation," Mr. Abrams told the group. "It's not about houses, land or development. It's the preservation of the life of the community."

To review the Island Affordable Housing Fund's assesment, you may visit their website at: www.vho.vineyard.net