Life is more than just housing
On Thursday evening last week, a group of about 25 seniors gathered in the community room of Woodside Village in Oak Bluffs to eat together and enjoy each other's company. The early supper would be followed by a movie, and many stayed for that. The food was very good (Peter Koines is the chef) and subsidized (the diners were asked for just $4), but even more important was the companionship. Most residents of Island Elderly Housing (IEH) live alone, and are at a stage in life when going out for dinner on their own is very difficult.
Last week the diners were apprehensive about the summer months ahead, when for the first time the thrice-weekly community dinners would be "taking a break." IEH director Ann Wallace told The Times that the program will be on hiatus while the IEH board seeks ways to continue to pay for the dinners and also for the Blueberry Van.
It's not a lot of money. IEH needs $40,000 every year to run the two popular programs. By Martha's Vineyard fundraising standards, that is a modest goal.
How did IEH pay for those programs in the past? There was help from individuals and companies on the Island, but the bulk of the money came from "development funds," money included in the grants for the construction of each building. The problem for IEH today is that it plans no more buildings, because the need for low-income elderly housing on the Vineyard has been substantially met. No new building means no new development funds. That pool of money is almost gone.
IEH collects a "management fee" to administer the federal rental subsidies, but that money can be used only for housing, not for anything else. If the board wanted to use it for the dinners and the van, it could not.
An affordable-housing success story
IEH provides housing for more than 170 low-income seniors and disabled. It has built millions of dollars worth of affordable housing and continues year after year to subsidize rents for tenants - all without auctions, dinners, or fundraising publications. How is that possible? The buildings operated by IEH have all been built with federal and state grants and are supported by more than $600,000 per year in rent subsidies. IEH tenants pay approximately 30 percent of their annual income in rent, an average of $250 per month, including utilities.
Because the Vineyard's largest affordable-housing success story has operated without public fundraising, it is almost invisible except to its tenants, prospective tenants, and their loved ones. Few know how the Vineyard got so lucky.
In 1974, Carol Lashnits, who retired last fall after more than 30 years as IEH Director, was working for Elder Services of the Cape and the Islands. A man called from the then-brand-new Martha's Vineyard Commission, asking whether she thought there was a need for subsidized housing for low-income senior citizens on Martha's Vineyard. She didn't know the answer, but she told the caller, "I'll find out."
Working through the Island Councils on Aging - people like Margaret Love, Marguerite Bergstrom, Willis Gifford, Fred Ferro, and Margaret O'Neill - Elder Services surveyed every senior on the Island and found that there was indeed a very large need. Even in the 1970s, costs on the Vineyard were escalating beyond the means of people who relied on social security to make ends meet, even if they owned their homes. To begin to meet this crisis, IEH was founded in 1976 by Ms. Lashnits, Ms. Love, and Ms. Bergstrom. In 1977 IEH built its first project, 40 units at Hillside Village, for $2 million, paid for with Federal Housing Authority (Rural Division) funds on land provided at a bargain price by Mr. Ferro.
Over the years, using more federal grants, and with help from its founders, IEH has expanded Hillside Village and added Woodside Village, Love House, and Aidylberg Village. There are now 165 units.
For low-income seniors, Martha's Vineyard Island is a better place to live than most areas. In addition to affordable housing, IEH residents use services from Elder Services of the Cape and the Islands, such as Meals-on-Wheels or the luncheons in the Island senior centers. Martha's Vineyard Community Services delivers other necessary help, such as visiting nurse calls or counseling. The VTA routes buses to IEH campuses, and for those who qualify for it, there is The Lift.
The campuses are places where an Islander who meets the IEH financial guidelines can "age in place" in safety, dignity, and comfort, living independently as long as possible.
However, there are needs that subsidized housing and public services do not meet. Almost from the beginning, Ms. Lashnits worked to provide "quality of life" programs such as subsidized light housekeeping, the Blueberry Van, and the community dinners.
The van makes about 200 runs a year, taking residents to medical appointments, on shopping trips, and to senior centers and the dinners. Many seniors find the VTA buses difficult, despite the considerate accommodations made by the drivers. Even for elders who are not sufficiently disabled to qualify for The Lift, in winter it is hard to get to and wait at the bus stops. VTA schedules cannot be tailored to every senior's need. Driver Kevin MacFarland estimates that the present van will last about eight years and a replacement will cost about $32,000. Including setting aside money for replacement, the van costs are over $20,000 per year.
The dinners cost IEH $10 to $12 each, for which residents pay only $4. There are two dinners at Woodside and one at Hillside each week, each serving 20-26 meals. Like the van, the dinners cost IEH about $20,000 a year.
Friends of the Village Seniors
The IEH board has decided to suspend the dinners for the summer months while it tries to find a permanent funding source for them. There is some money left to resume them in the fall, but it will not sustain the program indefinitely. The board envisions an organization, to be called Friends of the Village Seniors, comprised of anyone with a stake in IEH. Hundreds of Islanders are the children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, friends and former neighbors of IEH residents. All Vineyarders have at least a potential interest in IEH, if not for themselves then for their neighbors and friends. However, the board plans a narrower campaign at first, focused on those individuals and companies who have helped IEH in the past.
Ironically, those with the greatest interest in the Friends of the Village Seniors are those least able to provide financial support - the village seniors themselves, who are required by law to have "low" or "very low" incomes (some at Hillside may be of "moderate" income). Unlike some kinds of fundraising, Ms. Wallace says ruefully, "We have no alumni."
However, the residents are doing what they can. For example, Rhoda Tappan and others have assembled an afghan blanket to raffle off to benefit the fundraising effort.
The IEH board has drafted a brochure with the slogan, "Life is more than housing." The short-term goal is to pay for one year of the two programs, about $40,000. A larger goal is to fund the programs permanently, a goal of about $400,000, so that an annual appeal will not be necessary.
In the meantime
The IEH residents at dinner last week all expressed a love for the good food at a low price, and especially for the companionship. Almost to a person, they said that getting together was more important than the food itself.
The IEH staff plans to help the residents organize potluck dinners and backyard barbecues during the summer hiatus, and some of the residents thought that those activities would help a bit to fill the gap. Others were less optimistic. One woman told The Times that she would probably just eat at home every night this summer.
George Thibault joked that the break from the dinners would be "like getting out of Bellevue for the summer." But if the dinners strike him as theatre of the absurd, Mr. Thibault is a regular at the show, and he will be back in his seat in the fall.