On June 15 Martha's Vineyrad Savings Bank announced it had , a high-profile, long-troubled affordable housing development project in Oak Bluffs led by the Martha's Vineyard Housing Fund. The bank has frozen the MVHF's accounts.
Patch spoke with MVHF executive director Ewell Hopkins about lessons learned and the future of the organization. An edited transcript of that conversation appears below.
How did the MVHF get to this point, at which a property that was intended to be a landmark development failed to reach expectations and ended in foreclosure?
I think it’s fairly simple. First of all, we were over-ambitious in feeling as though the way forward was to involve as many causes as possible so that we could gain critical mass. In hindsight, what I think we should have done is stuck to . . . initiatives that were not exclusively but close to entirely focused on housing.
Everyone knows that that project was the focus of a preservation of historical significance. It was trying to be a part of a developing arts community and it was going to have a commercial component associated with it—all of which we don’t have expertise in. We are experts in fund-raising for housing. . . . So, it was an over-ambitious project that, with retrospect, did not have support that backed the expectations of the project itself.
What lessons did you learn from the failed development at Bradley Square?
The first and foremost is, if you don’t have overwhelming community support, you absolutely have to question what you’re doing. . . There was a lot of opposition in the community when we first started this project, associated with either lack of information or what they did know. But that needed to be a red flag. So lesson one would be: Do not proceed without overwhelming support.
The second lesson learned . . . is fiscal conservatism. Do not commit money that you don’t have. . . . You can’t initiate a $5 million plan with a couple hundred thousand dollars in the bank, even if you’ve seen a lot of interest by a lot of people. They have to have signed on the dotted line and said, “I will pay X amount of money over the next five years.” . . .
And then lesson three is, you can’t take on other missions and other causes without representatives from those missions or those causes financially committed as much as you are . . .
What will happen to investors’ money in light of the foreclosure proceedings?
The short answer is that, short of the project going forward with some sort of development, that money is lost. . . . Really, the money that was raised for the project—and then some—has been consumed in [permitting and design] costs. If there is nothing that happens on that site in terms of community benefit, then it will be lost. But I’m still holding out hope that something will happen on that property—not necessarily housing, but something that has community benefit.
Has this hurt your relationships with donors?
I think it calls into question our ability to advocate for the needs of Martha’s Vineyard. I think that’s a really fair criticism. But at the end of the day, I think enough people realize that it’s an unfortunate situation.
Many organizations have made financial miscalculations in the past few years. What distinguishes many of them from one another is how they respond to those miscalculations and the consequences of their actions. We have not walked away from them; we have looked them straight in the eye; we have not tried to sugarcoat them. And I think a lot of investors appreciate that . . .
The Bradley Square development was initiated by your predecessor, Patrick Manning, who has been criticized for staging lavish fundraisers and leaving the fund in financial straits. How has the fund changed under your leadership?
There’s so many different aspects of the housing fund, I don’t want to take someone’s money and apply it incorrectly, so we as an organization have spent an extensive amount of time putting discipline in place to appreciate the nature of giving, not just the amount of giving. . . .
The other thing we have done is understood our advocacy role in terms of being involved in these political frays . . . In the past we’ve kind of stayed on the sidelines; we’ve raised money and we left the politics to the politicians. We’ve gotten much more involved rolling up our sleeves. . . .
And then finally . . . because we’ve been under such scrutiny, the board [of directors] has taken on the complexion of a far more dedicated group of individuals committed to the long-term viability of our community. We have such determination on our board now, in terms of taking on hard challenges and being willing to take on the criticisms that go with it. That’s not to say that the former board didn’t, but the former board had a much clearer mandate. . . . Now, it’s much more unclear what the community is asking us to prioritize. . . .
On a real obvious level, we have severely discounted the importance of events-based fund-raising. I don’t, nor does my board, think that it’s time to “have fun with the fund”—that’s a quote we use. It’s time to solve big problems with the fund. So we don’t throw parties; we don’t have lavish cocktail receptions. . . . We don’t do that anymore. That had its time; that had its place. I don’t think that people who are really focused on the long-term perspective of the community are looking to go to lavish parties. . . .
Many have been quick to criticize the fund and your predecessor. You have not.
That’s right. I’m not hesitant to criticize anyone; I will make distinctions of how I would have done something differently, but I don’t feel as though it’s constructive [to criticize] . . . I don’t see the benefit of criticism. My job is to come in and be successful moving forward, not to come in and critique. . . .
It was a different economy, a different time, a different group of people, and I don’t want to spend a lot of time trying to draw the link. But the thing I will do is take away the lessons learned. . . .
I think [Pat Manning] did a superior job in creating momentum and enthusiasm. I don’t believe it was sustainable, and I think some of the fundamental disciplines and some of the foundational success of this organization was based on the work that Emily [Levett, former executive director] did prior to Pat coming on board. Very few people talk about the disciplined approach that Emily brought to the organization. We had more multi-year pledges during Emily’s reign than in any other executive director’s. . . . She was phenomenal in getting people to make long-term, multi-year commitments to the cause—not writing a big check under the spotlight by the pool, but to say, “You can count on me for this amount for the next five years.” And we have to get back to that. I’ve consulted with her quietly in the past, saying, “Please help me understand how that was done.”
What are the immediate steps that the MVHF needs to take in light of the foreclosure and frozen accounts? Additionally, some have criticized the viability, and even need for the MVHF. What do you see as the future of the MVHF?
Immediately, we opened up new bank accounts so we can deposit contributions. . . . And secondly, we have to make sure that people know that we’re open for business—that it’s not about supporting the fund; it’s about supporting the community. The more success we have with that goal, the better chance we have of moving forward.
Our viability—we’re never going to have an endowment. We’re never going to have a large sum of money in the bank that’s making money for us, because that’s lost opportunity. We will always have just enough money to be able to operate, and the remaining will be about servicing the needs of the community. So our long-term viability is not really the question. The question is what form the fund is going to take. Will it have a full-time staffer? Will it have multiple full-time staff people? Will it have an office, or will it be a virtually based operation, a lights-out operation?
There will always be a need for a nonprofit that can accept charitable contributions to the housing needs of this community. In what form, how big, how extensive and how effective? Those are real good questions. But viability? It’s not going away. The fund’s not going away as long as the need is there, and the need is not going away, I can assure you of that.
How do you respond to those that criticize the MVHF?
I’ll tell you, I listen very intently to those who are actively engaged and working on solutions, versus those who are sitting on the sidelines. Housing is a national need. There’s no place in our country where habitat is not challenged to some degree for our population. . . . Martha’s Vineyard makes it acute. It’s greater here than other places. Therefore, I know that because the cost of living is so high and it’s such a challenge to live on Martha’s Vineyard, the need for decent and affordable and reasonably priced housing . . . will always be there.
I also know in my heart that the methods embraced will evolve. But the one constant will be the need for financial resources to execute on those permutations. I’m confident about the prospects of our product . . . The question is, how relevant can we be in the solution? . . .
There’s Island Elderly Housing, which is doing phenomenal things for the housing needs on this island, which we played no role whatsoever in. Habitat for Humanity does phenomenal things for housing; we play a very limited role with them. The individual towns—Chilmark has taken on initiatives; Edgartown has taken on initiatives with absolutely no help from us. So, the question is not if we’re going to be around; the question is how many different solutions that are being contemplated will we be a part of making them real? And that’s what people should be looking at.
How niche will we become? Will we become really the voice of this island? Or, does this island even really want a voice? Because someone would say the voice of this island wants at least six voices, if not more. Those are the challenges that are facing our viability—how much people really want to embrace an island-wide perspective of housing. And that’s what we are. We’re not a town-based solution, and that works with us and that works against us. . . .