Island economics

Churches address affordable-housing crisis on Martha’s Vineyard
May 31, 2006

Cindy Flanders doesn’t do the “island shuffle.” Unlike many year-round residents of Martha’s Vineyard, she, her partner, Bill, and their young son, Michael, rent a two-bedroom home for $1,425 a month, which they don’t have to vacate for tourists. Others, however, are forced to “shuffle,” packing their belongings in mid-May and searching for temporary housing off-island until September, while landlords rent their residences at higher summer rates.

Many know Martha’s Vineyard as a luxury summer resort where the wealthy and famous entertain at expansive and expensive vacation houses. Year-rounders know firsthand or through neighbors the disparity of wealth and housing available on this beautiful island off Cape Cod, Mass.

Churches are feeling overwhelmed by the housing need. “Working families on the island are in big trouble,” says the Rev. Robert Edmunds, rector of St. Andrew’s, Edgartown. “A quick $50 from me no longer solves the problem.”

“The folks working on affordable housing here see this as an issue of an indigenous island culture being overrun by off-island wealth, which has created a land rush of over-priced real estate,” he says. “They see their churches as having a rightful place at the table for creating such housing and being a Christian moral and ethical voice in front of all the secular boards, commissions and court settings.”

Church building project

Members of the island’s faith community have formed the Bridge Housing Corporation to fight the housing crisis and preserve the diverse “human landscape,” much as the natural terrain is protected.

Founded six years ago under the umbrella organization Martha Vineyard Donors Collaborative, the group proposes to build Bridge Commons, a cluster of 15 two-family condominiums on 24 acres in Vineyard Haven.

Half will be set aside for families with low to moderate incomes, such as teachers, municipal employees and retail and clerical workers, who earn no more than $53,680 a year. The project is tied up in court, as neighbors have sued, alleging that the town zoning board acted arbitrarily and capriciously in granting a permit. Bridge Commons advocates point out that density housing actually preserves the open space that draws vacationers.

Environmental considerations are major on islands and coastal communities, Edmunds says. “Any affordable housing, to remain affordable, must deal with denser housing than single-family lots.”

While they await the court’s decision no sooner than August, advocates like Ike Russell, a member of Grace Episcopal Church, Vineyard Haven, continue to search for ways to help working families find safe, comfortable homes. A retired lawyer and former Foreign Service officer, he once represented neighborhood and church groups developing subsidized housing in Hartford, Conn., and brings his expertise to the island effort. “We’re building homes for people who already live here,” he says.

Flanders and her partner moved to the island six years ago. Her family vacationed there each summer, and her father, an Episcopal priest, descended from Vineyard settlers. The couple first lived with her mother, then a cousin, then in a barn equipped with electricity, a toilet and a hot plate, but no heat, oven or bathtub. For that they paid $6,000 for three months.

As a new mom, Flanders spent an entire summer searching for a year-round rental. “This is a great place to raise children,” says Flanders, a member of the vestry of St. Mark’s, Edgartown. “We go to the library and have potluck suppers. People care about each other here. A lot of summer folk don’t see the community we have.”

During the summer, Flanders manages a restaurant 60-70 hours a week. Her partner works as a chef 80-90 hours a week, working in construction during the off season. “It would be really nice to own a home, but it is so outside our reality we don’t dare think about it,” she says. “You don’t want to put yourself through that.”

Economic disparity

Terry Keech, administrator of the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority, has a list of 150 waiting for rental space. She worked this winter to find shelter for a man who lived under the Vineyard Haven drawbridge. Others are forced to live in their cars, tents or old buses.

According to the Martha’s Vineyard Housing Needs Update 2005, the cost of an entry-level home has more than doubled in the past five years. Median wages are almost a third lower than the state average; median house prices are double the state average and have increased four times faster than earnings.

Working alongside organizations like the Island Affordable Housing Fund and Habitat for Humanity, Bridge volunteers hope to prevent the towns from becoming what some call a “monoculture of millionaires.”

“The human ecology is under threat,” says Nis Kildegaard, a resident since 1981 and member of Grace Church. “We’re losing the last generation of ordinary people.” He recalls his own children trick-or-treating in a neighborhood full of other families and says residents who move off -island are not replaced by teachers, hospital workers or service providers. “The houses are dark now at Halloween,” he observes.

Bridge Commons builds on a history of church-sponsored density housing on Martha’s Vineyard. The collection of Victorian gingerbread houses in Oak Bluffs, now prized for their beauty and priced at close to $1 million, evolved from the 19th Century Methodist Church Camp Meeting.

The Rev. Robert E. Hensley, new rector of Grace Episcopal Church, says he distributed more than $3,000 from his discretionary account his first two months here. “My eyes have been opened,” he says. “I couldn’t afford to live here without clergy housing.”

An editorial in The Martha’s Vineyard Times echoes the growing conviction that long-term solutions to the affordable housing crisis must reexamine zoning regulations that hinder construction of moderately priced homes. In the meantime, the faith community on Martha’s Vineyard mirrors other efforts, such as the Episcopal Bridgebuilders Coalition.

“The sexuality debate has distracted too many for too long and allowed essential issues of hunger, housing, economic justice and international peacemaking to go without the attention desperately needed,” says Edmunds. “Affordable housing is an issue that affects large portions of many parishes — it’s not about someone else, it’s about us, our neighbors and our children.

“It’s about economic disparity; it’s about a living wage. It is about immigration in some places; it’s about human dignity; it’s about saving family life. It is about Christ’s call to serve those in need.”

For more on Episcopal Bridgebuilders Coalition congregations, visit:
and the Martha Vineyard Donors Collaborative