It appears that tenants will be secure at least through January in the four Island towns where rental housing contracts were put in jeopardy two weeks ago, when the Island Affordable Housing Fund could not pay the monthly subsidies.
The Dukes County Regional Housing Authority, which manages the rental program, covered the housing fund’s usual share of the November subsidies to 45 landlords by activating a $25,000 line of credit. The fund, after privately appealing to its donors, will make a payment today which housing authority executive director David Vigneault hopes will allow the authority to pay down around half the line of credit.
The fund’s new executive director, T. Ewell Hopkins, said yesterday that he has created a special crisis account for the rental assistance program, and checks small and large had been arriving, indicating a broad crosssection of support for the program. He indicated that a more public appeal would begin in the coming week.
Mr. Hopkins said he wants to help expand the rental assistance program, while still supporting new affordable housing developments. “We want to do both,” he said.
Not only had there been a precipitous drop in charitable giving, however, but some donations to the housing fund were earmarked for certain projects, which include the high-profile Bradley Square redevelopment and the homes being built at 250 State Road. The new account allows donors to earmark money to rental assistance, and, Mr. Hopkins said, with no incremental costs to the program, 100 per cent of those funds will go to rent subsidies.
Mr. Hopkins, who has been on the job just a month, also announced that the Island Affordable Housing Fund will hold a community meeting on Dec. 2 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Vineyard Haven Public Library for anyone to raise concerns or questions in an open forum and have direct access to him.
Meanwhile, towns have pinpointed short-term fixes they hope will cover the December and January rent subsidies, by using unrestricted housing funds already in hand, or through an emergency call on funds generated through a federal grant program.
Low and middle-income tenants in the Island’s rental assistance program are responsible for paying 30 per cent of their monthly income toward rent, while the remainder is paid directly to the property owner by the regional housing authority, with money provided either from towns or, up to now, the housing fund. The average subsidy is $6,000 per year, with most tenants in the program making about 50 to 80 per cent of average income.
The rental program involves 85 Island properties, but towns already cover the subsidies on 40 of those; the housing fund’s sudden shortfall affects the rest, including properties in Edgartown, West Tisbury, Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven.
Mr. Vigneault said yesterday that Edgartown, with eight affected rental properties, is planning a public hearing this month to take roughly $8,000 from an unrestricted town housing trust to cover December and January payments usually covered by the housing fund. The town fund includes monies from its Community Preservation Act funds as well as affordable housing funds collected from the conditions on developers of the Field Club.
West Tisbury similarly has a municipal fund from which it is considering allocating money to cover subsidies for its four affected rental properties through Feb. 1.
The bulk of affected rental properties are in Oak Bluffs, where subsidies cost about $112,000 a year (or $7,500 a month) for 16 rentals, and Tisbury, with about $110,000 to cover 15 contracts.
Neither town has a municipal housing fund it can call on for immediate funds.
However, both have for several years been recipients of money from a federal community development block grant administered by the state which is targeted at housing rehabilitation, allowing recipients access to zero-interest, forgivable loans to fix windows, roofs or other critical home repairs.
The block grant program has an income account holding about $30,000, from payments made when a property was sold before the loan was repaid, Mr. Vigneault said. Grant administrator Alice Boyd of Bailey Boyd Associates has reviewed the regulations, Mr. Vigneault said, and believes the income account, though restricted, may be available for use in this case. Oak Bluffs selectmen unanimously approved proceeding with that course of action, and there will be a hearing on Nov. 24, he said.
“That the towns are doing so much, so fast, is a measure and recognition of the value and relative cost efficiency of the rental assistance program and town ownership of it,” Mr. Vigneault said.
He said over the past year, with increasing calls on the housing fund’s money — the fund also pays for affordable housing developments through the Island Housing Trust and other programs — towns had begun to assume more of the rental assistance program’s cost with their Community Preservation Act funds. The crisis created by the fund’s shortfall has only accelerated the shift underway to greater town funding. He also reiterated that the fund had put $2.6 million into the program over the years, allowing rental assistance to prove itself to towns as a valuable resource.
Mr. Hopkins concurred that the fund had for some time been concerned about the lack of predictability in its payments to the rental assistance program and said he supports the shift to more stable town and grant funding.
If the towns can cover December and January, Mr. Vigneault is optimistic that the housing fund’s appeal to donors may secure the program further into the spring. Meanwhile, he is appealing to towns for CPA funding beginning next July, on the assumption that the housing fund will not contribute to rental subsidies after that time.
Mr. Vigneault expects some natural attrition in the program, and currently the housing authority is not refilling any rent-subsidized properties vacated, let alone taking people off its long waiting list.
Mr. Hopkins said public funds are a way to stabilize the program at it current size, “but this program needs to grow, it needs to double. At the same time we need to . . . consider how we help people striving for the dream of home ownership.”
As the new fund director, he is trying to strike a balance between rental housing and new housing starts, not just swing the pendulum from one to another, he said.
“Someone might even use both,” he said. “There is a natural evolution of someone getting job stability and a decent rental, then moving up to an affordable housing opportunity, then selling that for an unrestricted home of their own. That, I would consider a success,” Mr. Hopkins said.