Affordable Housing Fund Has a Goal, and Plans Ahead for Next Five Years

By MANDY LOCKE

When leaders of the Island Affordable Housing Fund (IAHF) say they'll be collecting $14 million within five years, it's clear there's no room for negotiation.

"There's a lot to be done," John Abrams, chairman of the young non-profit's board, said flatly.

This is the kind of no-nonsense, get on-board-or-step-aside conviction with which the fund has been operating since its birth, three years ago, emerging out of an Island-wide affordable housing forum. The forum, a first on the Vineyard, brought together dozens of residents anxious to talk about the affordable housing problem. A theme resonated through these brainstorming sessions: There was no money to fund ideas; government funding is hard to come by. Enter the nonprofit Island Affordable Housing Fund.

Since then, the IAHF has:

* Raised the cash to hire a full-time director for the practically defunct Dukes County Regional Housing Authority.

* Hired a consultant to report just how many people suffer from the housing crisis.

* Given $250,000 annually in rental subsidies, through the housing authority, to 40 Island families.

* Helped Edgartown's resident homesite committee fund a set of four house moves.

And more is in the hopper, like purchase of land for an affordable housing development off Upper Main street in Edgartown, and grants being offered to modest-income first-time homebuyers to help with closing costs.

"The gestation period's been long, but we're steaming ahead," Mr. Abrams said.

Already considered a "most valuable player" in the affordable housing movement, the IAHF has secured much of the capital used to bankroll other groups' efforts in the housing area.

Within these three years, nearly $4 million has come through the organization's coffers; the money is dedicated to a project just as soon as it comes in the door. The organization's staff and board members solicit funds through upscale cocktail parties and backyard barbecues. The leadership has even been courting the Island's summer guests in their mainland hometowns off-season, hosting several fundraising events in Boston with the likes of singer-songwriter Livingston Taylor.

"There's an amazing amount of resources here. I hear friends in the Boston area talk about how nonprofits and other charities in the area have been crippled because of budget cuts and the bad economy. But here, we're growing. We're very lucky to be surrounded by so much," said Jean Entine, who stepped down last week after nearly a year as acting executive director. Ms. Entine will now join the fund's board of directors.

Emily Graham, who as administrative director for the IAHF since its inception has offered staff support to the fund's committee projects and board, is now stepping into the role of executive director. Susan Spence, IAHF's first executive director, resigned last fall.

Ms. Graham, a 1995 graduate of Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., also holds a master's degree in art history from the University of Kansas. A life-long summer resident, Ms. Graham made the Island her full-time home four years ago, and began her relationship with the fund soon thereafter.

It's a formative moment for the fund.

In addition to Ms. Graham's hire at $57,000 a year, a few more Vineyarders have stepped onto the nonprofit's board. In addition to Ms. Entine, seasonal resident and businessman Jeremy Henderson and former investment banker and year-round Island resident Norman Hall will join the fund's board. Out of the fourteen board members, eight live on the Vineyard year-round.

"We're also old enough now to actually have a product, of sorts, to show people. We can point to something, to the Halcyon Way project [a West Tisbury duplex development] or Metcalf Drive [where the Edgartown houses moved], and say, this is what we're about," said Ms. Graham.

Fund leaders hope that sort of relevance, along with the growing severity of the affordable housing problem, will strengthen their fund-raising efforts.

"We're the organization that makes things happen - fundraising for the other groups' efforts. We'll always be working in collaboration with some other housing group," said Ms. Graham.

The Island Affordable Housing Fund is not building an endowment. What comes in goes out.

"We try to get it out the door as quickly as we can. It's part of us trying to stem the tide. We're doing what we can now, because an endowment's not going to help those getting on the boat decide to stay," said Mrs. Graham.

The organization's staff and leadership is actually juggling four different fund-raising campaigns. Each is geared to a different profile donor: the wealthy seasonal resident, the local business owner, the starving artist and the modest-income Vineyarder.

"People in every financial situation here feel the problem. Nearly everyone knows someone on the Island who's been in a housing predicament," said Ms. Graham.

In 2000, the IAHF's leaders convinced over 70 Island businesses to commit more than $100,000 a year to help cover the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority's administrative budget for five years. This private subsidy will eventually give way to public support; Vineyard towns agreed during annual town meetings this year to phase in yearly allocations to the housing authority, assuming full responsibility in about five years.

"The housing authority was ineffective and inactive because of lack of money. No one could pay for a full-time director. The money's brought them a stability so they can take on long-term projects," Mr. Abrams said. Housing Authority executive director Philippe Jordi was hired in the summer of 2001.

Then there's the high-donor fund-raising campaign called Raising the Roof, an effort expected to bring in the bulk of the $14 million goal.

Another fund-raising campaign, Islanders Helping Islanders, is a grass-roots effort aimed at getting modest yearly contributions from year-round Vineyarders. With annual gifts of $100 a household for five years from 2,000 residents, Islanders Helping Islanders could secure $1 million. So far, 300 folks have signed up.

Houses on the Move, a summer fundraiser which auctions off the house-themed items of local artists and builders, raises the money used for the housing authority's rental conversion program. Nearly $250,000 a year is paid in direct subsidies to landlords willing to convert their seasonal rentals to year-round homes for low-income Islanders. Forty households now benefit from this program.

The Island's housing needs assessment, a study commissioned by IAHF in 2001, gives the nonprofit group its marching orders. The study said that at least 50 affordable units must be created each year over the next five years to help take care of an estimated 250 Island households where the renters are paying more than 35 per cent of their wages in rent, or moving from summer rental to winter rental with the changing seasons.

Since 2001, the IAHF has managed to help meet that goal, though they know the number of households struggling has only grown since the survey.

"We're struggling, but we're getting it done. It's not easy work," Mr. Abrams said.