It is a cold, clear, sunny morning on Hitchings Circle in Oak Bluffs. Scattered around Laura Lee DeGregorio’s yard are a half dozen trucks with the names of contractors painted on the sides. The contractors, nearly all of them based on the Island, are standing in a circle in her driveway.
Michael Galasso is a program manager for a $1 million dollar federal Community Development Block Grant home rehabilitation program. He is addressing the assembled contractors. “We have 56 units to do this year,” he said. “That’s twice the number we did last year. We’ve got 26 ready go now.” He ticks off the plan for fixing up Ms. DeGregorio’s home. The siding, gutters, exterior door, storm door, hot water heater, basement bulkhead and door, sink, faucets, counters will all be replaced or repaired.
After a few more instructions, and few questions, the contractors break out tape measures and calculators and begin figuring the cost of materials and labor. They will submit bids for the job, and the lowest bid will get the work.
Jobs and joy
Ms. DeGregorio is standing in her yard, holding her dog, as the contractors measure and poke around her home. She is very happy, but a little bewildered by the whole process. “I never expected so many people to show up,” she said.
Like hundreds of other Island families, Ms. DeGregorio’s family is getting much needed home repairs through the federal block grant program. The work is funded in the form of a loan, which is really a grant, because in most cases, it doesn’t have to be paid back. “I work every week to make ends meet, there’s never a surplus,” said the single mother of three teenagers. “I could never do this if I had to take out a loan on my own.”
Over the past nine years, more than $7 million dollars has come to the Island through this and similar block grant programs. Each family is eligible for up to $35,000 in repairs. Almost all of it goes to Island contractors. When they spend their salaries on the Island, it has a multiplying effect, benefitting Island stores and businesses. “It keeps guys working,” said Oak Bluffs contractor Ray Sylvia. “It fills the gaps. Right now there are a lot of gaps.”
“Every one of these men have families,” Ms. DeGregorio said. “It’s hard times. This is going to help them. This circle of giving is awesome. They were all here for my family. Nowhere else. I don’t think this happens anywhere else.”
No pay back
To qualify for the loans, you must own and live in the home, and earn 80 percent or less of the area median income. For Martha’s Vineyard, that means, for example, a single parent with one child can earn up to $52,350 and still be eligible for the home improvement program. For a two-parent home with two children, the household income can be up to $65,450.
The money comes in the form of a forgivable loan. The zero interest loan is written for a term of 15 years. But there are no payments, as long as the resident, or a family member, remains living in the home. After 15 years, the loan is completely forgiven. If for some reason the family moves, then part of the loan must be paid back, usually from the proceeds of the sale. For example, if a family got a loan of $30,000, but had to move out of the home after 7.5 years (half way through the 15-year term), then half the loan amount, or $15,000, must be repaid. Occaisionally, that happens, and when it does, the money goes into a program income fund, and it can be used for local community development, as long as 90 percent of the people benefiting are low-income residents. Last year some of the program income was allocated to send Island kids to summer camp. This year it is being used to supplement the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority’s rental assistant program.
Melissa Norton Vincent, who manages the loan program, says she loves her job. “It’s Christmas year-round,” Ms. Vincent said. “When we get to tell somebody we’re going to come in and fix everything they have been worrying about? This program changes lives.”
Heat and hot water
It certainly changed the lives of the Tilton family, who live in a modest Vineyard Haven cottage. This is their first winter in the newly repaired home. “It’s especially helped the kids, and us as a family to spend time together,” Heather Tilton said. “We can have kids over, their friends can come over. At work, we’re less stressed. It’s helped us.” For years, the only heat in their home was a small room in the front of the house with electric heat. Heather Tilton used fans to spread the heat to the rest of the home, but it didn’t work very well. “We were used to roughing it, we didn’t complain,” Ms. Tilton said. “Once they did find out we didn’t have heat and hot water, they really wanted to help us.”
John Jones Construction did the work, beginning last spring. The contractor replaced the windows, siding, roof, rain gutters and several doors. He installed a new furnace and hot water heater. Each improvement is appreciated, and none are taken for granted. “It was a big deal for us to have windows that you could see out of,” Ms. Tilton said. “Our old windows were rusty, there was moisture trapped between. You couldn’t see out the windows, it was depressing. As soon as the new windows came in, it affected us emotionally. Everything was clean and nice. It was a good feeling, a feeling of security in having shelter, real shelter. It was just incredible to take a hot shower. It’s such a healing thing, when you can take a hot shower whenever you feel like it, it’s very healing.”
Back at Ms. DeGregorio’s home on Hitchings Circle, the program managers are trying to herd the contractors toward the front of the home. Ms. Vincent and Mr. Galasso advise them that they are due at the next project shortly. There are a lot of next projects. Grant writer Alice Boyd is asking for $2 million Island-wide next year. “We truly love what we do, but the need is huge,” Ms. Boyd said. “At this point we have 145 people on the wait list. It’s just a huge need.”
Mr. Jones said nothing is wasted. “It’s a great program,” Mr. Jones said. “If you shave a penny somewhere, they’ll find a way to spend it. This is a million bucks coming onto the Island.”
Some of the contractors are trying to take just one more measurement, but finally, most are finished, and ready to measure and calculate somewhere else. At the prospect of another job, they jump in their trucks and zoom off to help another homeowner.
Informational meetings for home rehab grant program
Jan. 8 12:45 pm Edgartown Council on Aging
Jan. 11 6 pm West Tisbury Library
Jan.12 6 pm Edgartown Library
Jan. 13 6 pm Vineyard Haven Library
Jan. 13 4 pm Oak Bluffs Library
Jan. 14 10 am Up-Island Council on Aging
Jan. 14 12 pm Chilmark Town Hall
Jan. 20 12 pm Aquinnah Town Hall
Jan. 22 10 am Oak Bluffs Council on Aging