Over the past eight years the Massachusetts Community Development Block Grant program has funneled more than $14 million toward vital housing needs of Martha’s Vineyard residents. Thanks to concerted last minute lobbying by Island leaders over recent weeks, it will continue to do so.
But it was a close-run thing.
Until Tuesday this week, it looked as if the Vineyard’s unique status as a moderate-income community with many wealthy seasonal residents would see it deprived of more than $1 million a year, with dire effects on some of the community’s most vulnerable people.
The block grant program provides forgivable zero-interest loans to low-income homeowners for critical home repairs and correcting building code violations. That allowed more than 250 home rehabilitations over the years.
To get some idea of what that means, consider the example cited by Tisbury town administrator John Bugbee, to his board of selectmen a couple of weeks ago, as he urged them to get involved in lobbying against proposed state changes to the eligibility requirements.
He told of one family of four that had no heat or hot water in their house, because they could not afford a new heating system. They were forced to take twice-weekly showers under a neighbor’s outdoor shower.
“This,” Mr. Bugbee said, “is the type of thing the grants help with.”
In the case cited, a grant had enabled the homeowners to install a new boiler.
More recently the block grant program was expanded to include child care subsidy for more than 70 income-qualified working parents on the Vineyard.
Even as it stood, the program did not meet the demand — there is a waiting list of 220 families for the child care subsidy and 150 families on the waiting list for the housing rehabilitation program — but the proposed changes would have cut off the supply of money, on a technicality.
The problem was a new requirement that in order to get so-called bonus points for block grant money — and no community got funded without bonus points — it had to engage in not only rehabilitation, but also construction activity — such as paving streets or sidewalks, water, sewer or park construction — and be able to certify that at least 51 per cent of the beneficiaries of that construction activity were low to moderate-income households.
The trouble was, in a community like the Vineyard, where more than half the homes are seasonal, it is almost impossible to accurately quantify the income levels of households.
Ewell Hopkins, the executive director of the Island Affordable Housing Fund and one of those who lobbied against the change, said the “artificial factor” of seasonally-occupied houses made the needs of the Vineyard look less significant than they were.
“So there is this pot of public money targeted at disenfranchised communities which are easily assessed. But ours is not so easily assessed,” he said, adding:
“People don’t realize that a lot of the people who stay here at the end of the season after all the wealth leaves are in as dire need as those people in Brockton.”
A form letter distributed to the various towns and other authorities for sending on to the Department of Housing and Community Development secretary Tina Brooks put the difficulty in precise terms: “According to the 2000 US Census, the three counties of the Cape and Islands region had the highest seasonal housing occupancy rates in the commonwealth: Nantucket County 60 per cent, Dukes County 57 per cent, and Barnstable County 36 per cent. Therefore our communities would not be eligible to apply for public infrastructure projects . . .
“The proposed policy changes could penalize development and rehabilitation of affordable housing on the Cape and Islands in direct contrast to the fact that the need for affordable housing and CDBG funding is so acute in these communities.”
The letter went on to note various factors which made the needs of the Vineyard unique and compelling: its rapid and decentralized growth, the difficulties in providing infrastructure in a place with such a huge seasonal population change, an aging population, relatively low median income and high median home prices, and a cost of living 70 per cent higher than the national average and 26 per cent higher than Boston.
“The CDBG programs are vital to help sustain the year-round Island community on Martha’s Vineyard,” the letter said.
Various Island representatives also lobbied hard over recent weeks.
It worked. The news came in an e-mail on Tuesday from Christine Boyd of Bailey Boyd Associates, the consultants who do much of the grant application work for Island towns.
“I’m very pleased to let everyone know that DHCD has backed down on their proposed policy change . . .” the note began.
It went on to thank people involved in the lobbying effort, including Melissa Vincent of Edgartown, Christine Flynn of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, Oak Bluffs town administrator Michael Dutton, and Mr. Hopkins.
Ms. Boyd said she was writing separately to the state senators and representatives, including those representing the Island, Tim Madden and Robert O’Leary, for their support.
“It’s so rewarding to work with dedicated community members AND a state funding source that listens,” she wrote.