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Affordable Housing Development in Martha’s Vineyard

In Practice
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Affordable Housing Development in Martha’s Vineyard

Photograph of a marsh area and pond on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.
Photograph of a marsh area and pond on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.

Martha’s Vineyard is a 100-squre mile island located south of Cape Cod in Massachusetts. With its pristine views and relaxed seaside pace, the island is well known as a vacation getaway for the powerful and affluent during the summer months. Comprised of six towns, the island’s estimated year-round population of 15,000 residents swells to more than 75,000 in the summer months. Year-round residents interested in purchasing a home on the island are often outbid by second-home buyers, and renters, whose landlords only allow short-term leases (weekly, monthly, or seasonally), often do not have access to stable year-round housing. Rental rates skyrocket between May and October, making it difficult for renters who live and work on the island. Realizing that essential workers such as police officers and paramedics are being priced out of the island, the town of Chilmark, Massachusetts has moved forward with the island’s first-ever affordable housing development.

Chilmark’s Move to Improve Housing Affordability

Each May, many year-round residents in the sparsely populated, rural town of Chilmark do what the locals call the “Vineyard Shuffle.” Packing up all of their belongings, residents move from their winter home in Chilmark to a more economical summer home, avoiding the high summer rents typical of Martha’s Vineyard. Some residents move in with relatives or friends in the community, but many leave the island altogether, sometimes for good. As Todd Christy, administrative assistant with the Chilmark Housing Committee, says, “People joke about affordable housing in Martha’s Vineyard, but it’s a bad joke.” Indeed, the income-to-housing cost disparities are exceedingly stark for a town with a year-round population of only 894. In 2009, the median household income in Chilmark was slightly more than $57,000, while the median value for a home was a staggering $1.5 million. The new town-owned affordable housing development, Middle Line Road, aims to bridge the gap between the high cost of housing and the more modest incomes of households who live and work in the community.

Nestled off a dirt road in a heavily wooded part of town, the Middle Line Road complex offers 12 affordable housing units. Half of the units are rentals spread across three duplexes that range in rent from $812 to $1,312 (based on a household earning 65 to 70 percent of the area median income). The other six were offered as one-acre, vacant residential home sites for owners to build their own homes; these owners would lease their land from the town on a long-term basis (99 years). To ensure that year-round residents are the primary occupants, the ground lease requires residency for at least 11 months out of the year. Christy says that with many Chilmark residents leaving the community each year, town officials sought ways to encourage future generations to stay. Thus, the lease specifies that residents’ children may inherit the home provided that they meet income qualifications; an approach that Christy hopes will sustain a new generation in Chilmark. The homesites were awarded in 2010 through a lottery system that gave preference to those who have been residing on the island for at least 5 years.

Completed in October 2011, the project maintains the Cape Cod architectural style seen throughout the Vineyard, including the traditional cedar shingles. The duplexes range from one to three bedrooms and are equipped with energy efficient heating units. Although the design of the single family units varied from project to project because each owner was responsible for its construction, they still maintain the same architectural style as the duplexes. To save on construction costs, some single family homes arrived as prebuilt modular homes, while others were handcrafted by their owners. The total cost of the housing complex is estimated at just over $3.5 million, which includes $2 million from voter-approved funding, an additional $600,000 from state funding, and the rest from Community Preservation Act funds.

The Middle Line Road housing complex was conceived and designed to meet the housing needs of working people who have been priced out of the Martha’s Vineyard housing market. Residents are now able to enjoy the stability and convenience of living where they work. Residents of the complex include a town accountant, a police officer, a small business owner, a paramedic, and a local angler — all essential town employees. The Middle Line Road project is just the beginning, says Christy. The town already has plans to build on the momentum of the Middle Line Road complex and to develop more affordable units to bolster the population of year-round residents.


The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.