Affordable Housing Forum Sparks Hope

By IAN FEIN

Martha's Vineyard may have an affordable housing crisis on its hands, but it also has the community support and political will to address the issue.

And if the Island's many grassroots housing organizations cooperate in their present efforts and continue to experiment with new ones, the crisis in the long run could change the Vineyard for the better.

That was the message last week at the forum Living and Working in Paradise, organized by the Martha's Vineyard Commission. Over the course of the two-hour evening, affordable housing advocates painted an optimistic picture for the future.

"If we pace ourselves and keep making the progress we're making, in 10 years, 25 years, 50 years we will have a very different Island and a very healthy community," said John Abrams, president of South Mountain Company and chairman of the Island Affordable Housing Fund.

"Together we've succeeded so far in something that nobody thought possible. And as this effort stretches across generations, I believe it will change the culture and landscape of the Vineyard - hopefully in ways that will be gratifying to all."

Guest speaker William Hettinger, who authored a book that studied four communities grappling with housing issues, said that although the Vineyard may not be the furthest along of the four, the strength and diversity of the Island community gives it an advantage in the years ahead.

"One of the requests made of me tonight was to talk about solutions that worked in other places," Mr. Hettinger said. "But all of the other places have one-dimensional solutions. Martha's Vineyard has multiple solutions, and some of the most innovative solutions I've seen."

About five dozen residents turned out to discuss some of those solutions in the Katharine Cornell Theatre last Wednesday. The forum also included a panel discussion with Mr. Hettinger and six Vineyard housing advocates, each of whom represented a different facet of the current efforts on the Island.

Mr. Abrams looked briefly to the past and highlighted the initiatives and projects undertaken on the Vineyard in the last five years. In that time, he noted, the Island created 95 affordable ownership opportunities and 83 year-round rentals, with another 165 units permitted but either under construction or in litigation.

The numbers stand in stark contrast to 2000, when the Vineyard had no town funding for affordable housing, no tested deed riders, no rental conversion program, no functioning town housing committees, no housing developments planned on town land, no Island Housing Trust and no Houses on the Move.

"All of these we have now and plenty more," Mr. Abrams said.

Panelist Derill Bazzy, chairman of the Aquinnah housing committee, said it was vitally important that all of the new organizations and town committees coordinate their efforts.

"Each town is currently working in many ways in isolation," Mr. Bazzy said. "Some groups are beginning to close that gap, but if the towns themselves worked together on housing - the way they work together with the [Martha's Vineyard] Land Bank - then it will really begin to break down some barriers for housing."

Mr. Abrams said much the same thing about zoning.

Each town has a different set of bylaws that could be extremely useful for housing developments, he said, but they need to be publicized and shared among the towns. Mr. Abrams hoped that the six planning boards would take a coordinated and careful look at the zoning already in place before trying to invent more bylaws on their own.

"Zoning is very complicated, and it's incredibly imperfect. We always get results we never intended," he said. "But fearless trial and error is the way. I think we have to be bold, we have to be outrageous when we use these mechanisms. But first we have to know them, and we have to share them."

The discussion about zoning also raised questions about where affordable housing should be developed on the Island. Should smart growth principles be applied to affordable housing projects? Is there an inherent conflict between land conservation and providing housing?

Land bank executive director James Lengyel said that multiple opportunities exist for conservation organizations to work alongside housing groups, but those joint efforts need to be determined on a site specific basis.

Panelists agreed that once locations are identified, a mix of rental and ownership opportunities was the best way to accommodate the different needs of the community. But there was also consensus that if ownership units are built, deed restrictions must be included to ensure perpetual affordability.

"One of the mistakes every community I looked at made early on was not building perpetual affordability," Mr. Hettinger said. "As the restrictions expire, somebody makes a lot of money."

Another question raised last week was who should get preference for town-built housing units: people who grew up there, or more recent arrivals who are active members in the community?

"I personally feel very strongly about the genealogy and generational history, and our young people being able to be here if they want," said Abbe Burt, Tisbury resident and coordinator for the Martha's Vineyard Housing Bank Coalition.

"There's a community here because you have aunts, uncles and grandfathers. To me that's one of the most important things about the Vineyard - its history, an oral history."

Island Housing Trust chairman Juleann VanBelle said that although she thought generational residents deserved first crack, she did not want to deny opportunities to newer people with different skills and talents.

"I've begun to think of affordable housing like Noah's Ark - we have to get two of every kind on board," Ms. VanBelle said. "I don't like the word essential for police and firemen. What about artists or the people who bag your groceries and pump your gas? We're all essential."

Mr. Abrams offered another solution to the problem: build a big enough ark to fit them all.

"The real idea is to make enough, and commit to doing that," he said.

Across the board, panelists hailed the passage of the Community Preservation Act (CPA) and the housing bank initiative - which appeared on ballots across the Island this spring - as a milestone for Vineyard housing efforts.

They said they hoped the CPA would bring in more than $2 million per year for affordable housing projects, and added that the housing bank - a housing fund organization modeled after the land bank - could bring in another $2 million per year if approved by the state legislature and again by Island voters.

Mr. Hettinger warned panelists about relying on any single source of funding.

"You need to spend money wisely, because no matter how much you have, you'll never have enough," he said.

Recognizing the long battle ahead, the panelists were nevertheless optimistic that their efforts will eventually prevail.

"I have observed and believe that Vineyarders solve problems as thorny as they may be," Mr. Lengyel said. "I have no reason to think the Vineyard could solve all its other problems and not this one. It's going to happen."