The Vineyard shuffle is not new to many year-round residents and families on the Island. The seasonal shift uproots families from summer dwellings to winter ones and back again. Landlords capitalize on eager summer vacationers ready to pay top dollar for a place to stay on their two-week summer excursions. While this makes fiscal sense for those renting out houses and apartments, it often leaves locals and those working in the community without a place to call home.
Brenda, Dominick, and Josiah Mastromonaco are now one of the many families forced to find a new place to live. Brenda, a former candymaker, is retired. Dominick, Brenda’s husband, has been working at the Vineyard Transit Authority for more than 10 years. Their son Josiah is an adult with special needs who lives with them at home.
“I’ve been coming to the Island most of my life,” Brenda said. “My grandparents owned Hilliard’s Candy Kitchen on Circuit Avenue. My parents owned it later after them, and I worked in there during the 1980s. I came here with three young children in 1980. I’ve been here ever since, except for a couple of excursions off for a few months each.” Dominick came later, moving from Yonkers, N.Y., to the Island in 1991.
Brenda spent her first summer packed into a relative’s house that also saw a steady flow of other families on their vacations. Come winter, housing was cheaper and easier to find. Brenda leased a rental with some peace of mind, but the looming end date of the lease hung over her, making her wonder where she and her family would live next.
That was close to 37 years ago. Today, Brenda and her family still struggle to find year-round housing. This time they have to leave the house they have called a home for the past 19 years, the house their son grew up in. “My parents had bought that house back in 1985 so my older kids and I could have a place to live. My parents have both passed away. The house is part of my father’s estate, and in order to settle the estate — I have four sisters — because none of us had the money to buy all the others out, it had to be sold. It’s gotta be split five ways. They have to sell it. There was no way to keep it up, and there was no way for any of us to buy it.”
Their move-out date is at the end of January.
Before they lived in Brenda’s parents’ home, the Mastronomancos had done their fair share of Island shuffling. “It used to be that you could open the newspaper and see the listings for housing. It’s not that way anymore,” said Brenda. “One winter through Cronig’s Real Estate they had winter rentals. That was only one year. Other times it was usually just in the newspaper. That’s not the way it’s done anymore. It makes it really difficult.”
The housing they are looking for is simple enough. “We need a two-bedroom house. I have trouble on stairs, so it would really be best if it was one story,” she says. Whatever home they find, the Mastromonacos want it to be year-round. “With laundry facilities,” she adds with a laugh.
Dominick and Brenda agree on the same two obstacles, “availability and affordability.” Finding a house is difficult enough; finding something affordable seems insurmountable. “Dominick is our main income. When people are looking for $2,000 a month rent, it’s impossible. It’s far beyond us.”
Determined to find a solution, Brenda and Dominick went to the Cape Cod Five Cents Bank and the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority in Vineyard Haven to weigh their options. They considered purchasing their current home or applying for a new one. They found out they had no options. With their sole income being Dominick’s wage from the VTA and Brenda’s Social Security from retirement, the Mastromonacos fall “just under the threshold for a mortgage to buy a house and just over it for housing assistance,” Dominick said.
They make too much and they make too little.
Last week, the Mastromonacos went off-Island to look for housing. They found several rental listings on Craigslist, but with dismal results. “We just came back from the Cape and used that,” said Dominick. “It’s very limited. We ended up getting in contact with a realtor on the Cape.”
Brenda and Dominick’s realtor drafted a profile for them to give to potential landlords. “He screens us, then landlords feel more comfortable that way with potential tenants,” Dominick said.
Brenda feels the realtor off-Island is helping them. With the realtors on the Island, she feels differently: “It’s not something realtors do here on the Island, for the most part. I’ve tried, I’ve contacted realtors.”
While finding a permanent place to live has been challenging for the Mastromonacos, the Island is where they want to stay. “We like the pace of the Island. It’s quieter. Just going over to Hyannis for three days, it was chaotic,” says Brenda. “We both have family here.”
If they were to leave the Island, “it would be pretty impossible” for Dominick to keep his job at the VTA, Brenda said.
“Others have tried it,” Dominick said, recounting a talk he had with his boss and other co-workers. “They said after a couple of months, you get burnt out. Especially with my schedule; I start at 6 in the morning.”
Dominick remembers a co-worker who went through something similar: “At the bus company we’ve had a lot of people that had to move over to Falmouth because of the housing situation. We had a very good mechanic. He lost his housing here. He tried traveling here for a couple of months, but he ended up getting a job on the Cape.”
While moving to a new community off-Island might seem like a fresh start for some, it doesn’t make much sense for Dominick who, after 10 years, has earned a solid position at the VTA. “I’d have to start at the bottom rung somewhere,” he said. “I’d be starting over, and I’m 62.”
Brenda and Dominick did find some hope at Morgan Woods Apartments in Edgartown, where they were approved for housing, but now have to sit on a long waiting list. With a move-out date in January, Brenda and Dominick don’t have much more time to wait.
Brenda’s story is a far too common one, representing part of the larger housing issue on the Island. More than two-thirds of the houses built between 1990 and 2010 were for seasonal or brief use, according to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. Houses previously built for year-round residents often change ownership and become seasonal rentals. With an increase in demand for seasonal housing pushing prices up, year-round residents are often left with limited and expensive housing options.
The result of these expensive housing options is a wide affordability gap that families like Brenda’s succumb to. In 2013, the Martha’s Vineyard Housing Needs Assessment found the weekly wage on Island was only 71 percent of the state average. The median price of a home is typically 54 percent higher than the state average. Similarly, the median rent on the Island is 17 percent higher. This means wage-earning families like the Mastromonacos, who are part of the year-round community, are at a steep disadvantage when finding an affordable place to live.
Brenda and Dominick keep a hopeful disposition, despite a stringent move-out date at the end of January, and the possibility they might have to move off the Island they cherish so much. “It’s not just a summer resort,” says Dominick speaking of the Vineyard. “It’s a year-round, little town community, but the infrastructure is starting to break apart as far as the housing for the blue-collar worker.”
“You know you hear a lot of talk about how they want to build apartments on this Island,” said Brenda. “I would really like to encourage people that it’s got to be done. It’s the only way you’re going to keep workers here. You’ve got to provide housing; it’s got to be done somehow. We just had a brand-new house built across the road from us. As far as I can tell, there’s one man living there. it’s a huge place. There’s got to be some way to solve the housing problem here.”