Housing Bank Plan Wins Key Legislative Support

By IAN FEIN

The proposed Martha's Vineyard Housing Bank picked up key support on Beacon Hill this week, where the legislative committee that reviewed the bill this winter voted unanimously to award it a favorable recommendation.

Though the bill still must pass through the House ways and means committee before reaching the floor for a vote, the recommendation from the joint revenue committee will give it some much-needed momentum during what is expected to be a busy few months in the State House. The legislature must act on the bill before the end of its term July 30.

Cape and Islands Sen. Robert O'Leary, who filed the bill in October and is a member of the revenue committee, said that without the support received this week, the proposal effectively would have been dead in the water.

"Now it's starting to move, and that means the situation has improved," Mr. O'Leary said yesterday. "But there is still a long way to go, and a lot of potential obstacles."

On the Island, supporters of the bill reacted to the news favorably.

"The bill continues to make progress, and we continue to be cautiously optimistic," said Martha's Vineyard Co-operative Bank president Richard Leonard, who is chairman of an ad-hoc housing bank coalition. "Our message seems to be resonating, and the support we have shown is paying off."

Modeled after the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank, the housing bank would generate roughly $2 million per year for affordable housing projects through a seller-paid transfer fee on Island real estate transactions. Voters in all six Vineyard towns approved the concept in a nonbinding ballot initiative last spring, and, if passed by the state legislature, the proposal would still require another round of support by Island voters.

Mr. O'Leary and other supporters of the housing bank have said candidly that the legislation faces an uphill battle to passage.

The state legislature typically eyes local tax initiatives with caution, and at the revenue committee hearing held on the housing bank bill in January, a state senator from western Massachusetts argued against the proposal. He urged his fellow committee members to address the affordable housing crisis statewide, and not create special legislation just for the Vineyard.

Mr. O'Leary said the revenue committee this winter wrestled with a similar bill proposed from Nantucket. The so-called "McMansion bill" also would create a funding agency for community housing, but instead of using a transfer fee would raise funds through a tax on new home construction in excess of a certain size.

Mr. O'Leary said the revenue committee simultaneously reviewed both proposals and ultimately recommended the Vineyard bill over the Nantucket version, which it sent on for further study. But he added that legislators would prefer to adopt one solution that could be applied to both Islands.

"Both bills used different approaches but were trying to address the same issue," Mr. O'Leary said. "The question is, can we come up with a solution for both?"

Legal counsel for Sen. Cynthia Stone Creem, the co-chairman of the revenue committee, said yesterday that the large turnout of Vineyard supporters at the January hearing helped sway the committee to support the bill.