Soundings : The house across the street
Three years ago, I sat in a minuscule chair (just right for a second-grader) in the Edgartown School library and listened in on six interviews with finalists for the post of principal. In four of the six interviews, the candidates spoke at length about the number crunching and soul searching they'd gone through to sort out a critical question: could they afford to live here on Martha's Vineyard?
A principal at the Edgartown School makes more than $110,000 per year.
Across the street from my house in the Ocean Heights neighborhood of Edgartown is a place for sale that used to be the home of a wonderful guy named Bob Hathaway. Bob was an Army veteran - he drove tanks, and flew helicopters, and looked like the sort of fellow who could do all that. In Edgartown, he was a commercial fisherman, the father of a family, a library trustee and a member of the harbor advisory board.
Bob died in November of 2005; his wife, Mildred, now lives in Florida and has put the house on the market. It's a modest but tight and sturdy house, seemingly just the place for a new generation of Edgartown folks to make a home and begin contributing to the community as Bob and Millie did. Except that the numbers don't work.
If you had a down payment of $50,000 in cash lying around, and if you were prepared to stretch a bit and spend a third of your pretax income on mortgage payments, you could afford that house across the street - on annual wages of $120,000.
In fact, there's currently a glut of housing on the Vineyard market that a school principal might, with some penny-pinching, be able to afford. A visit to the LINK database last week turned up more than 150 residences offered at prices between $400,000 and $600,000. (Most are at the upper end of that range; most of those at the bottom will need another hundred grand or so in work to be really livable.)
As director of the Vineyard Housing Authority, David Vigneault tries to keep an eye on this range, the low end of the Island real estate market. Three years ago, he recalls that on his monthly checks of the market, he'd find two or three houses for sale at $500,000 or less, and those tended to be snapped up quickly. Last year that number of properties ballooned to two dozen or more, and he began seeing the same listings, still for sale, month after month. This year the numbers have jumped again, and these properties continue to linger on the market. This suggests that still more owners are on the sidelines, wanting to bring their houses to market but waiting for a better moment.
One of the market's problems is that many of the lower-end properties now up for sale were built as homes for year-round working families, and they present themselves more as family residences than as summer retreats - even as their prices put them beyond the reach of the folks who earn their money here.
"There's a lot more inventory now," says Sharon Purdy, a long-time Edgartown realtor, "and some of it's not particularly attractive to summer buyers. In fact, a great majority of it isn't - because you're talking about inland subdivisions, no water access, and you have what we call 'Vineyard landscaping.' If you try to change that property to more of a summer quantity, you end up spending a lot of money - and you still haven't changed the location."
Still, many neighborhoods like mine, historically home to families of year-round working people, are tipping to seasonal as properties are bought up by folks who can afford them - that is to say, folks whose incomes are earned in Boston and New York. The current low-end glut will begin to ease, Ms. Purdy predicts, when stability returns to the national real estate market, boosting confidence among the off-Island buyers who are on the sidelines now. Eventually, she says, "We're going to regain the seasonal buyers in that $500,000 to $800,000 or $900,000 range."
Meanwhile Eleanor Wilson, who manages LINK, the Martha's Vineyard Listing Information Network, sees an emerging species of buyers who view the Island not as a vacation resort, but as a new suburb. "You now have this new group of telecommuters," she says, "who are buying a house on Martha's Vineyard instead of a house in the suburbs of Boston."
She adds: "A lot of the people buying primary housing here now are effectively not living here. I mean, their families might be living here, but these guys commute up and spend three days in Boston, where they're making six-digit incomes, and they think Martha's Vineyard is the most wonderful place in the world. Their families are here, the schools are good, the community is safe. But they're not really Vineyard residents, because they're not depending on the Vineyard for their income. On some level, we're becoming a small suburb of Boston."
The disconnect only grows between the buying power of the people who earn their livings here and the cost of those houses across the street - the houses in which Island working folk once lived. Says Ms. Purdy: "I can't tell you how many people have come to me, recommended by the school system, saying: 'I'm going to take a job as a school teacher, help me look at real estate.' We have a preliminary discussion - we don't even go out and look. The end of the discussion is, 'I'm very sorry, I can't take this job.' They're coming from Hoboken, N.J., where they're living in a 3,000-square-foot house, two and a half baths, four bedrooms, and it's worth $225,000."
But never mind the homeless school teachers; they're last year's cliché. Martha's Vineyard is rapidly becoming unaffordable even for principals.