Housing Bank Legislation Languishes as Lawmakers Ready to Recess Session

By IAN FEIN

With the state legislative session set to expire in 10 days, a proposal to create public housing banks on Martha\'s Vineyard and Nantucket appears to be effectively dead for the year.

The special legislation - which would tax some real estate transactions to fund affordable housing initiatives – was still stuck in the house committee on ways and means yesterday afternoon, and, even if approved on the house floor next week, would be subject to a gubernatorial pocket veto that could not be overridden.

Rep. Eric T. Turkington of Falmouth, whose district includes both Islands, maintained an optimistic front this week, but acknowledged that the bill had virtually no likelihood of passage. He said candidly last month that the show would be over if he did not get the legislation out of the house and onto the desk of Gov. Mitt Romney by yesterday afternoon.

The governor has 10 days to consider a bill once it is passed by both chambers, which would give Governor Romney, a Republican, enough time to kill the bill by inaction. The formal legislative term ends July 31, after which the legislature cannot override a veto.

\"In real life, it\'s highly unlikely that this will get through,\" Mr. Turkington said on Wednesday. \"The governor has not communicated with us about this bill, and he has vetoed everything that came before him in the past that looked like a tax.\"

Regardless, Mr. Turkington pledged to do everything in his power to move the bill in the house - even if for a purely symbolic vote. The senate approved the bill by a 23-14 margin late last month.

\"Frankly, if we get it through both houses - even if the governor does veto it - that would be an astonishing accomplishment for a bill of this nature,\" he said. \"And I\'m hopeful that we\'ll still be able to do that.\"

Modeled after the Island land banks, the housing bank would generate funding for affordable housing projects by taxing real estate sellers one per cent of their transaction price. The first $750,000 of the purchase price would be exempt on the Vineyard, and the first $2 million would be exempt on Nantucket.

Despite support from Island real estate agents, the transfer tax structure faced strong resistance from the Massachusetts Association of Realtors and some state lawmakers. Opponents say the real estate surcharge would place an unfair impediment on home ownership, and could spread elsewhere in the commonwealth.

Martha\'s Vineyard Co-operative Bank president Richard Leonard, who is chairman of an ad-hoc housing bank coalition on the Island, would not speculate about future plans for the proposal yesterday because he was unwilling to acknowledge its likely fate.

\"The clock is against us, but we still share optimism that it will make it through,\" Mr. Leonard said. \"We haven\'t given up on this cycle. We\'re still in the game.\"

If enacted by the state, the housing proposal would also require another round of support by Island voters.

Assuming the legislation does not pass in the next week and a half, the earliest it could be refiled would be this winter. And though the bill would have to begin the legislative process again from square one, Mr. Turkington noted the progress it made this year would help its future chances. The bill received favorable recommendations from the joint committee on revenue and the senate ways and means committee, and a Boston Globe editorial earlier last week urged house lawmakers to pass the legislation.

If it is refiled, the bill would also get a jump start much earlier in the new two-year legislative session, and would be considered under a different executive branch. Governor Romney, who is widely expected to run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, is not seeking another term in the state election this fall.

Island housing advocates, however, will have to weigh financial matters when deciding whether to resubmit the bill. It is understood that lobbying efforts for the housing bank have depleted their political coffers.

The housing bank coalition hired former Cape and Islands Sen. Henri S. Rauschenbach as a lobbyist and legislative consultant this year, though it is not known how much he has been paid.

Lobbying disclosures for the first half of the year were due with the secretary of the commonwealth this week, but Mr. Rauschenbach did not disclose any payments from the Island housing organizations. He did not return telephone calls for comment this week, and neither Mr. Leonard nor Emily Levett, executive director of the Island Affordable Housing Fund, had financial numbers available yesterday.

Meanwhile, state disclosures show that the Massachusetts Association of Realtors, which pushed hard against the housing bank this spring, paid lobbyist Mark Delaney $65,000 through the first six months of the year. The disclosures did not specify how much of that amount went toward opposing the housing bank bill.

More than a year ago, the Island Affordable Housing Fund spent over $60,000 in a six-month campaign leading up to the spring 2005 town meeting and ballot votes, where four Vineyard towns adopted the Community Preservation Act and all six towns approved the housing bank concept in a nonbinding form.

Housing advocates at the time noted that money spent on the campaign could have gone toward affordable housing projects, but argued the expenditures were justified because they helped create stable funding sources. If approved, the housing bank would generate an estimated $2 million per year for affordable housing projects on the Vineyard.

Vineyard Haven resident Abbe Burt, who worked as a full-time administrative assistant for the housing bank coalition last year, said the legislative consultant was a necessary investment, but acknowledged that - in hindsight - the whole effort was rather risky considering the uphill battle they knew they would face on Beacon Hill.

After making its way around the Island, the housing bank legislation was filed on Beacon Hill last fall, with only 10 months left in the two-year session.

\"There was a lot of time, money and effort put into trying to get this through, even though we knew the timeline was ambitious,\" Ms. Burt said yesterday.

Whether the bill passes or not, Mr. Leonard said the money was well spent.

\"We think it prepares us well for future efforts, and it has certainly gone a long way toward educating people at the state house about the crisis in housing here on the Vineyard,\" he said.

Sen. Richard Tisei, a Republican of Wakefield and one of the most vocal senators opposed to the housing bank bill, said yesterday that he understands that the housing crisis is more acute on the Islands than elsewhere in the state. And he said he supports the overall affordable housing efforts on the Vineyard, but felt strongly that the proposed transfer tax method was the wrong way to go.

\"Creating a tax on housing that makes it less affordable isn\'t going to provide more affordable housing,\" said Senator Tisea.

A real estate agent who also owns a home in Edgartown, he said he might be the only person in the state legislature that has sat at the table during a real estate closing and actually paid a transfer tax.

\"Adding another one per cent tax on top of everything else you have to pay would create a huge expense and a real burden for a lot of people,\" Senator Tisea said. \"This bill wouldn\'t have just taxed off-Island people purchasing second homes. This would have made it a lot more expensive for a lot of native Islanders who were trying to purchase a home.\"