Affordable Zoning

What are Island towns doing to encourage more housing, and will it work?

Building affordable housing on the Island faces a myriad of obstacles, money being the lead contender. But increasingly, some advocates – and even the governor – cite zoning bylaws and infrastructure limitations as thwarting creative approaches that could deliver greater impact at a lower per-unit cost.

“As I’ve looked at the affordable housing puzzle, obviously there are a lot of pieces, but zoning is a problem,” says real estate agent Jim Feiner, who has served on the Chilmark Housing Committee for seventeen years. “It’s the biggest piece, because the things it doesn’t allow are exactly what would create the most opportunities for affordable housing.

“I think ultimately the town needs to create a multi-family bylaw that allows for duplexes and triplexes,” Feiner says. “You could still build a 2,400-square-foot structure, but it contains three 800-square-feet homes that are deed restricted to people at 150 percent of the median income.”

That’s unlikely to be an easy sell, particularly in an up-Island town that enacted three-acre zoning in the seventies, places limitations on guest houses, and has had few bites from homeowners to cut off an extra acre for an affordable housing lot.

“We have to lower the value of NIMBY,” says Feiner, referring to the “not in my backyard” response that proposals for change invariably face. “Zoning always bumps up against NIMBY because there will always be people who object. The question is, how do we weigh those objections, because we have to create better housing opportunities.”

Over at the Island Housing Trust, executive director Philippe Jordi and his organization are developing maps that show areas suitable for higher density housing. The results demonstrate that board of health regulations also influence what can and can’t be built. Specifically, efforts to limit further degradation of the Island’s ponds from traditional septic systems means that only those portions of the down-Island towns connected to town water and sewer are environmentally suitable for high-density development.

Jordi thinks the map may help town leaders – and eventually voters – determine what kind of affordable housing they want to see, which in turn could lead to concrete action. “We’ll know what opportunities exist for what type of development,” he says. “We simply don’t have enough time to aimlessly dodge this passive-aggressive stuff anymore.

“Do they want to see top-of-the-shop housing, or denser cluster housing that may be more in keeping with small town New England, so we’re not creating suburban land development? And that’s a tough one because everyone knows what they don’t want, but don’t know what they want.”

This being the Vineyard, the most likely outcome is that every town will want something different. Already Oak Bluffs has voiced its approval for so-called top-of-the-shop housing. In 2017, it passed a zoning bylaw that allowed for more rental units to be added to businesses in the downtown area, thereby creating additional vibrancy in the town center and convenience for renters. West Tisbury, for its part, began loosening its accessory unit bylaws in 2000, a series of moves that has led to the creation of more than sixty rentable units.

Christine Flynn, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s economic development and affordable housing planner, says the Island has fallen far short of an ambitious goal of fifty new affordable housing units each year that a housing needs assessment set in 2013 and amended to forty-five in 2017. But, she adds, some real success has come through these various town bylaws. “There is no silver bullet that can fix the Island’s housing shortages, but we can chip away at addressing the needs through various tools such as zoning.”

It’s a tactic supported by Governor Charlie Baker. For the second year in a row, he’s pushing a bill that would allow towns to adopt zoning changes by a simple majority vote rather than a two-thirds requirement, with an eye to loosening restrictions on accessory units and lot sizes. The bill is pending in the legislature, but overall has been well received.

Even so, some maintain citing bylaws as a key obstacle is a cop-out when there’s a bigger issue at play. “It’s a really interesting topic, because when it comes to zoning and affordable housing of any scale, the mechanism is there,” says John Abrams of South Mountain Company, who has been involved in several affordable housing developments dating back to the 1990s. He points to Chapter 40B, sometimes known as the anti-snob zoning law, which allows local zoning boards to approve a development that might otherwise be denied if at least 20 to 25 percent of the housing remains forever affordable.

Abrams would like to see greater density allowed when it comes to affordable community or senior housing projects, “but when people say you can’t do anything about affordable housing without changing zoning, that’s not true,” he says.

“A lot more can and should be done, but zoning is not the impediment to affordable housing. Money is.