In a significant change of direction, the director of the Island Affordable Housing Fund, Ewell Hopkins, is looking to large-scale affordable rental projects rather than home ownership developments as a solution to the Vineyard’s chronic housing problem.
And as money for affordable development from the traditional source, private donations, has dried up, he is turning instead to other sources, specifically the federal government and the largest national nonprofit developer of affordable rental housing.
The approach he is proposing could hardly be more different. Instead of local, private funds, he is looking to national, public funds. Instead of building houses a few at a time he is talking about building rental properties by the dozens in tightly-clustered villages.
If people on the Island can come to terms with the shift, Mr. Hopkins said, there is money out there to help ease the Island’s housing crisis. Lots of money.
But for it all to come together, he said, it will require a shift in thinking toward acceptance of large, high-density, rental projects. He said it will require an acceptance that some of the zoning practices on the Island are “archaic” and working against the affordable housing mission. And he said it will require authorities to think about the Island as a whole instead of six towns.
Mr. Hopkins already has identified three potential sites for such development: the moribund Bridge Commons project on State Road in Vineyard Haven, the Southern Woodlands in Oak Bluffs and the abandoned Cozy Hearth development in the outskirts of Edgartown.
Currently the developers at Bridge Commons have 14.9 acres of land and completed plans for 22 affordable houses, a debt of some $2 million and a written promise from Mr. Hopkins’s predecessor as director of the fund, Patrick Manning, of more than $1 million to be made available in the first quarter of 2009.
Mr. Manning has long since decamped and the fund has no money to make good on the promise, leaving the development at the mercy of its creditor, Boston Community Capital, which has so far extended the loan. How much longer it will do so is uncertain.
“The irony is money is no longer the challenge,” said Mr. Hopkins. “Money is available for certain types of smart-growth development targeting certain groups and incomes.”
And certain types of projects. The federal money Mr. Hopkins has identified is for rental housing.
“The focus is all on rental, for a multi-unit approach,” he said. “There’s not that much money out there for home ownership right now.”
With some redesigning, Mr. Hopkins feels certain the Bridge Commons project could still be viable.
And in recent weeks, he has diligently been courting various parties who could help make it happen.
“I’ve been authorized by the [Bridge Housing] board to negotiate on their behalf,” he said.
“I’ve talked to the finance service that owns the note [on the land]. I met on Jan. 4 with the largest affordable property developer in the country, Community Builders. The next day I flew to Washington for [new Congressman William] Keating’s swearing-in. I’ve been doing a lot of work on him advocating the housing needs of the community.”
And he has been to the Tisbury selectmen to inform them of his intentions.
“I’m trying to bring some kind of convergence,” Mr. Hopkins said.
“If I could get town support for Bridge . . . I know the money is there. All the other parts are there. No question.”
“Community Builders has received over $80 million this year from the Feds to do this kind of work. Thirteen million of the funds are earmarked exclusively for Massachusetts. We could get a part of that.”
The problem is scale. For Bridge to work as a stand-alone development, Mr. Hopkins said it would need to comprise not 22 houses, but “at least 35 to 40 units . . . to make the numbers work.”
Affordable rental accommodation, he said, needs economies of scale.
“You must have that, so [the rental properties] generate enough income to support themselves, with a standard of maintenance that the larger community would expect,” he said.
“That translates into a certain level of density. If you allow denser design formats you can share septic systems, for example, maximize the use of public transport and minimize the destruction of natural habitat.”
“The question is finding a way to do this with political and community support,” he said.
“It’s really difficult to make Bridge stand on its own . . . because when people see plans for 30 or 40 rental units they immediately put up blinds.”
One answer, said Mr. Hopkins, is to bring on other projects in other places on the Island at the same time. He calls it the “scattered campus” model.
Hence his interest in the other two areas of land as well. If all two or three were developed, each could be a little smaller, and still allow the developers to make those economies of scale.
There are issues with the other two areas as well though.
In the case of the Southern Woodlands area in Oak Bluffs, there is a complex issue of land title.
The town owns 24 acres which was designated years ago for affordable housing and is now is surrounded by land bank land. The property has no access. The town and land bank agreed in 2004 to a land swap where the town would give the land bank the so-called doughnut hole in exchange for land with access near the ice rink.
But Oak Bluffs has been slow to establish that it has clear title. And the land swap would have to be approved by the state legislature.
“Community Builders have walked the property with me. They’re very interested. That land, in conjunction with Bridge, makes the numbers work responsibly,” said Mr. Hopkins.
“The third one is the old proposed Cozy Hearth development near the airport.”
Island businessman Bill Bennett wanted to build 11 houses there, but only won approval for nine units.
“Bill Bennett’s out of it, he’s done, the land is for sale,” said Mr. Hopkins.
“So there’s 10 acres that has permitting for affordable housing on it.
“The big question is whether Martha’s Vineyard as a whole wants to embrace those types of initiatives — is there really a place called Martha’s Vineyard, or is it just six towns?