It’s early June and if you listen closely, you might hear the scrunch of packing tape stretching across the tops of boxes as hundreds of Island residents gather their belongings for the semi-annual ritual known as the “Vineyard Shuffle.”
With homeowners able to rake in thousands of dollars a week in rents during the summer season, tenants who are welcome from October through May are often pushed out of their affordable off-season digs, making way for far more lucrative summer folk. And, while many landlords live off-Island, some are full-time residents themselves who choose to move out of their own comfortable homes and into other dwellings in pursuit of the same enticing income.
Though the late spring and early fall Vineyard tradition of vacating and re-nesting has historical roots in times when Islanders living in “town” (probably Edgartown) would decamp for a cottage in, say, breezy Menemsha, the Shuffle has become a necessary evil for a growing population of Island residents who simply can’t afford any other option.
According to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s 2009 data, nearly 30 percent of renters shuffle from winter to summer quarters.
Until recently, one of those renters was Oak Bluffs resident Alyssa Venincasa, 34. “Housing is so unaffordable here, as a single person all I could afford was a room for $600 a month,” she explains. Working part-time at a veterinary practice and part-time as a gardener, Ms. Venincasa recently escaped from the Shuffle by moving into her boyfriend’s newly purchased home. But before this past winter, she rented in a variety of settings, including a friend’s basement, a summer room on a horse farm (sharing the property with one tenant in the rustic barn and another in an Airstream trailer) and a two-bedroom winter condo in Oak Bluffs overlooking Nantucket Sound.
Ms. Venincasa’s involvement in the Island’s horse community gave her a leg-up on other renters: “People want to help when they know you and hear you’ll be homeless in two weeks. I think it helps to be part of some type of community when you’re looking for housing.”
Another large hurdle she had to surmount – finding a landlord who would accept Blanche, her 105-pound, four-year-old French Mastiff. But now that she’s stopped Shuffling, Ms. Venincasa and Blanche are happily ensconced in more stable surroundings. “I’m planting a garden, buying things, and bringing personal stuff out of storage from my parents’ house,” she says. She’s even gotten rid of the S.U.V. that used to transport her belongings from one rental to another. “I’m down to a Mini,” she says, chuckling.
Another reformed Shuffler, West Tisbury resident Niki Patton still sounds traumatized when discussing her five years of nomadic life. A Shuffler from 1995 to 2000, Ms. Patton is grateful to have found a more permanent living situation in a cottage she rents from what she calls a “very reasonable landlord,” but still feels trepidation about her future.
Abandoning a high-powered career as a media producer in New York City, Ms. Patton moved to the Island at 45 years of age, cobbling together a new life as a writer, performer, business manager and occasional producer. “Figuring out how to stay on this Island, between finding work and housing, is a real magic trick,” she says. Sixteen years later, now 61, she admits that she is anxious about how she’ll afford to continue to live here. She tried to build her own home but says that the process ended very badly. After living in water view homes during her Shuffling winters and in small spaces alone or with a roommate during summers, she says that her primary focus now is on security.
Her advice to those forced to Shuffle: Be diligent. “I must have made 75 phone calls to friends and looked at every ad I could find,” she says.
The way Ms. Patton sees it, the rental picture is even grimmer today, with fewer properties available than when she was actively in the market. “This is a unique community,” she cautions. “If we lose our ability to house people, the character of the Island will be in jeopardy.”
Homeowners Kristin Zern of West Tisbury and Scott Smith of Vineyard Haven take advantage of the onslaught of summer visitors by renting out their homes on their own through such websites as VRBO.com and AirBnB.com. Without the seasonal income, both Ms. Zern and Mr. Smith say that they would be unable to maintain their otherwise year-round residences.
Semi-retired, Ms. Zern and her husband Brook, a flamenco historian and musician, purchased their Island home seven years ago with a definite plan to help defray the costs. Chosen for its desirable location and size, Ms. Zern (who spent her career in the hospitality marketing industry) spruced up the four-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath home on one-and-a-half acres with luxury goods like high-end linens, top-of-the-line beds, and Pottery Barn-like furnishings. The result: It’s booked solid from June 22 to September 15 this season.
“The process is horrible,” she reports, “but it’s worth it economically. It takes three people to prepare the house for the season, removing all of our personal stuff. It gets harder and harder.”
In spite of the inconvenience, she says, it’s like earning a separate income. “It’s better than any part-time job and it enables us to afford luxuries like stainless steel appliances.” For the past six summers, the Zerns have left the crowds of the Island behind for a $500 per month, three-bedroom, two-bath apartment in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain, known as the capital of flamenco dancing, sherry wine, and horsemanship. As for the future, the couple plans to continue renting their West Tisbury home out to summer vacationers “unless,” as Ms. Zern notes, “we win the lottery.”
Mr. Smith, Executive Director of Vineyard Youth Tennis, and his wife Rhonda maintain homes in both Vineyard Haven and Tampa, FL, where they lived full-time before Mr. Smith accepted his current position. Ms. Smith still spends much of the year in Tampa, where they hope to retire, while Mr. Smith’s job requires his full-time presence on-Island. Renting their Vineyard home out during season allows them to keep both houses, but it also means that Ms. Smith only spends every other summer on the Island. According to Mr. Smith, his wife tried Shuffling the first summer they owned their home, moving with him into a rented room nearby.
“Now she comes up every other summer and we stay home,” he says. During the summers Ms. Smith spends in Tampa, Mr. Smith rents simple quarters in Vineyard Haven and counts the days until he can move back into his own home.
“It’s easier because it’s just me,” he explains. “I can take any sort of accommodation.” And any sort is just what he’s settled for: He describes one season spent in an old house in need of repair, with holes in the window screens, mosquitos as regular visitors, no air conditioning, and a single bedroom to himself on the second floor with a shared bath.
“You say you’re never going to do it again,” he says. “But then you look at the money it takes to keep up with everything and you end up doing it again.” His advice to homeowners: Don’t leave anything behind that you don’t want to lose and buy basics for renters’ use.
As for finding a decent summer rental to Shuffle into: “Make sure everything you need is in place before you agree to rent. Agree up front with the owner about the furnishings.”
A final note about the Vineyard Shuffle is sounded by singer/songwriter and voice/movement therapist Corinne de Langavant of Oak Bluffs who penned a catchy song (see sidebar) about the unique phenomenon after Shuffling as a single mom with her infant son for several years. A homeowner herself today, she rents rooms to other summer Shufflers, acting on a mixture of economic need and social conscience. Her Shuffling experience included stints in a sheep barn with no water, plumbing, or electricity; a tiny room with a single bed in a round house; a studio above a garage in Aquinnah; and an attic room in Vineyard Haven with pull-down stairs.
“Shuffling taught me to be resourceful,” she says. “People all around the world endure hardship. Pushing your limits isn’t a bad thing. Shuffling is an exercise in gratitude, humility and flexibility.”
Help for Vineyard Shufflers
Here are some helpful resources for Island housing:
—Airbnb.com will list your room or house for rent for no fee. It’s also a great place to find a place to shuffle into.
— www.vineyardhousing.org: The Vineyard Housing’s website that provides comprehensive information on rental programs from a variety of agencies.
— Facebook’s MV Housing Rental’s page: The social network’s page links homeowners and renters, providing an opportunity to share information on available properties and individual needs.
— The Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce: www.mvy.com provides a listing of Island real estate agencies that offer rental services.
— The Martha’s Vineyard Times’ Classifieds: www.mvtimes.com, both online and in our print edition, current listings of available rentals of all types.
The Vineyard Shuffle
by Corinne de Langavant
Every year on the Island in the month of May
Vineyard landlords will tell you to be on your way
Gotta make room for the summer folks
Who have all the money, kids, cars and boats
They’ve got the means, the cold, hard cash
Forget about your friendships and face the facts
Each man for himself, that’s where it’s at
Everybody do the Vineyard Shuffle…
So do the Vineyard Shuffle oh, the Vineyard Shuffle
Up and down, around, all over town
Won’t you do the Vineyard Shuffle with me?
Well, I can trade gardening, childcare, carpentry
For a space in your basement I can live for free
Hmmm, I don’t know if I can be happy down here
Living in this hole with three guys drinking beer
When October comes I can live like a queen
With three whole acres over looking the sea
With bathrooms and kitchens equipped A to Z
Ain’t it great just to be here and to be so care-free?
Doing the Vineyard Shuffle…
Well, summer’s a comin’ winter rent’s all paid
It seems like the time when arrangements are made
At least I’m past the initiation stage
When landlords ‘n’ employers play “Catch 22” games…
You can’t get the room unless you have a job
If you don’t have references they’ll assume you’re a slob
You can’t get the job unless you have a home
It does no good at all to pester, whine and moan
So do the Vineyard Shuffle…
Visit www.corinnemv.com to listen to Ms. Langavant’s rendition of “The Vineyard Shuffle.”