Housing Report Paints Grim Picture
Of Rental Market Crisis on Vineyard

By MANDY LOCKE

You know exactly who they are - your son's second grade teacher, your neighbor whose spouse left last year, the EMT who revived your father last month. It's the regional high school class of 1997.

This is but a snapshot of the nearly 2,000 faces of those unfortunate enough to struggle month after month, year after year with the lack of affordable housing on Martha's Vineyard.

You've heard their stories dozens of times, but do you know just how severe the affordable housing problem is?

Thanks to a grim study of the Island affordable housing crisis compiled by consultant John Ryan and released Nov. 26 at a forum sponsored by the Island Affordable Housing Fund, Vineyarders can finally comprehend the economic tug-of-war that keeps their friends shuffling between expensive and often inadequate rentals year after year.

When Mr. Ryan put pen to paper, the problem became clear.

Island renters earn less and pay more. The average annual income for the Vineyard renter is estimated at $26,000, roughly 27 per cent below the state average. The cost of rent is beyond reach. The $1,000 average monthly rent on Island is 30 per cent higher than the average in other state communities.

The disproportionate ratio of wages to rent means that one-third of Island renters pay at least 35 per cent of their income to rent - a rate the state considers a hardship.

John Abrams, chairman of the Island Affordable Housing Fund board of directors, found this statistic one of the most shocking in the study.

"The federal standard was 25 per cent in the 1970s. . . . Now it's crept up to 35 per cent, and remember that on the Vineyard the remainder of peoples's income goes to inflated prices for goods, fuel and other necessities," Mr. Abrams said, explaining that raising the affordability standard allowed the government to offer less housing assistance.

Unfortunately, affordability is but one of many obstacles for Island renters. Availability is even more daunting. Over half of the Island's 15,000 homes are only occupied on a seasonal or part-time basis. The disproportionate summer-to-winter population, coupled with the lure of landlords charging even steeper rents to summer vacationers or summer workers, makes year-round leases scarce. Roughly 40 per cent of renters lack a year-round option in their current rental. That forces them into the summer shuffle.

While renters may drift from house to house on the Island, they are unquestionably committed to life on the Vineyard. Seventy per cent of them have lived on the Island for the last five years, and almost half have lived here for at least 10 years.

The bulk of Island renters are not 20-somethings fresh out of college. Only 25 per cent of renters are under 35 years of age. About a third are of the 35-44 crowd, while another third are baby-boomers between 45 and 54 years of age.

While no renter escapes the hardship of finding and retaining affordable housing, single parents seem to bear a particular burden. Of the Island's 190 single parents, 85 per cent earn less than $32,000, which is 80 per cent of the country's median income. Well over half pay more than 35 per cent of their income in rent. Forty-four per cent lack secure, year-round leases. And this group has been dealing with this problem for quite some time. Eighty-five per cent of them have lived on the Island for more than five years.

Despite the seemingly impossible scramble to find affordable rental housing, Island renters dream of owning their own Vineyard home. Considering the average real estate price during the first half of 2001 spiraled above $750,000, many renters lose hope.

To break into the housing market, a renter would face a mortgage exceeding $300,000 for a starter home. But only a third of renters making between $32,000 and $56,000 could handle a mortgage on a home priced at just $250,000.

And in the Vineyard's $6 billion real estate market, homes under $200,000 have all but disappeared. There were only nine of these homes for sale from January through October of this year. Only 30 homes between $200,000 and $250,000 appeared on the market in the same time frame.

On the Vineyard, the ratio of home price to income is five to one. That's steeper than Boston (three to one) and even the Cape (three point four to one). Only Nantucket's ratio is greater than the Vineyard's.

The low stock of affordable homes poses one problem, but so does the competition for these limited houses.

"On the rare occasion that a nice little cottage comes up, there are off-Islanders willing to pay the asking price in cash," Mr. Abrams said.

Certainly these nice little cottages are the exception, not the rule in the Vineyard housing market. Most of the homes in the $200,000 range are not suitable for living.

"These are places you wouldn't wish on an enemy - many of them are strictly tear-down material," he added.

Little money and less than desirable accommodations used to be a source of bragging rights, the necessary rite of passage to becoming a real Islander.

"Twenty-five years ago, there were campgrounds, abandoned camps in the woods, caretakers positions, plenty of cheap rentals, many options. And, on the other side, renters could look forward to moving into cheap land, larger parcels that could be easily subdivided by a group of friends, easy fixer-uppers. The resiliency is all gone, so it's no longer a rite of passage, but just the stressful and frustrating experience of competing with many others for the few secure places to live that still exist," Mr. Abrams said.

Little by little, renters lose sight of their dream of buying a home and permanently settling into this community. They leave, and the community loses.

"If they leave, we not only lose our work force but we lose the people who coach our kids' sports teams, who maintain public safety and who keep our community vital and diverse," Mr. Abrams said.

And when others remain and wade through the steep prices, the community still sacrifices.

"If they stay and we don't improve conditions, I can only imagine that we get larger case loads at Community Services [who will have a tough time keeping their employees], more substance abuse, more child abuse and a host of other social problems," Mr. Abrams said.

To view the full needs assessment report, visit www.vho.vineyard.net The Gazette will take an in-depth look at viable solutions to the affordable housing problem next week.