Island family at the end of its rope

Couple forced to look on mainland because of housing prices.

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From left, Brenda, Dominick, and Josiah Mastromonaco sit outside their home. — Stacey Rupolo

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.”

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14 COMMENTS

  1. My heart goes out to these folks, with the hope they will find a suitable situation before January – but what about next summer? I too did the so-called “Vineyard shuffle” for many years, but this much I will tell you. The housing, employment, environmental and regulatory issues on this island are inter-related in a way that the politicians have not understood or addressed, at least in the interests of the electorate. The solution begins with an informed and objective electorate, then proceeds with the removal of politicians who cannot or will not grasp the issues or the solutions.

  2. I’m getting sick of this type of attitude! They have had 37 years to plan to live on island and have failed. How is that a housing crisis?! Poor planning does not constitute a crisis. If you can’t afford to live on the island its that simple, don’t blame others. Do you think people that worked hard and planned and own a home should somehow subsidize those who didn’t ? Ridiculous.
    You live on a resort island, and guess what, people want to be there. It’s called supply and demand.
    If you truly want to live on a place as special as Marthas Vineyard, you have to sacrifice to make it happen!
    It is not owed to you.

    • Check your premises; does this have to be a “resort island”. By it’s very nature it lacks completeness, or integrity if you will. An informed and motivated electorate can effectuate change. Start questioning yourself on every issue that arises—how does this impact the people who live here year round, and how are the politicians coming down on it?

    • There are people doing the day to day chores, seasonal and year round, that enable the Island to be an enjoyable place to live. Retail store clerks, supermarket workers, restaurant wait staff, teachers, municipal workers; what happens when they can’t afford to live living here? Do you want to pay $200 to get an oil change for your car?

      The cost of living on the Island is kept down by those working on marginal wages. They leave, the cost of living goes up. Do the people who live here year round want to maintain a place as special as Martha’s Vineyard? Did you plan for cost of living to increase? There’s your supply and demand.

      • Your statement, “the cost of living on the Island is kept down by those working on marginal wages” belies a harsh and parsimonious, almost feudal mindset, which I hope you will repudiate. You very next statement, “They leave, the cost of living goes up”, then utterly undermines your first and restates the issue – they ARE leaving. Even limited feudalism requires the presence of serfs, except in former Johannesburg (where the workers rode the train from Soweto) and Fishers Island where they are ferried each day from Connecticut. Go to the SSA in early morning and see the beginnings thereof. But let us rather take the approach that “the tide lifts all boats”, and look for solutions that benefit all.

      • Seriously. The cost of living here is ‘kept down’? We are rountinely gouged by the people expecting a handout of below market housing. The police easily get paid 6 figures. My friends daughter rountinely makes $400 per day waiting tables (cash=no taxes paid). This a place that offers plenty of opportunities for those with limited skills and performing manual labor to make a LOT more money than off-island. Whether cutting grass, painting a house, cleaning a house..its all CASH, they don’t pay taxes on it, then expect those of us who went through the shuffle to subsidize them. Nobody has a god given right to live here. If you are motivated you can make big $$. I have seen plenty of people start with a lawn mower and a pick up truck and become millionare landscapers. Same for painters, carpenters, roofers. The opportunities are here if you want to work hard. But don’t expect those who did to subsidize those who don’t. My comment is not directed at this family, but in general, who is supposed to pick up the tab so businesses don’t have to pay their help in a supermarket? Its not like we are getting bargain prices on ANYTHING here.

    • This is a great family. Dominick is a hard working really nice guy. I get really sick of the attitude of people like Thomas here. It’s attitudes like his/ her’s that create the kind of situation where someone can work hard all their lives and get squeezed out by economic conditions over which he has no control.
      Merry christmas, Thomas. You make the grinch look like a nice guy..

      • Are you looking for a handout as well? Things are different here, but they have been different for many years. Either you figure it out or you don’t . This family didn’t.

        • I probably hand out more money than you do.
          Perhaps you are well insulated from the economic realities– perhaps you are one medical emergency from bankruptcy.
          I don’t know your financial situation, but you are obviously morally bankrupt.
          Finding good year round housing is not always a matter of money– of course , if you can afford $5k a month for a rental, you can likely find that.. But if you are an honest person with a low paying full time job, perhaps it gets tougher. I know Dominick– if you were in need he would do what Jesus would do– he would give you the shirt off his back so you could be warm.
          Your cold calculus about “figure it out” is right in step with everything America does not stand for. Your attitude is not only deplorable, but is contrary to every ideal that has really made the United States great.

        • Unfortunately “Thomas” is dreaming in some magical bubble about “Storybook Island”…which is not uncommon to many…Shhh!…Don’t wake “Thomas” up to the fact that if he/she purchases certain properties in West Tisbury he/she could only rent their accessory dwelling year-round to those who qualify for affordable housing…What? There… are who… living on Martha’s Vineyard? Yes, dear, people…real people…who qualify for “affordable housing”. And would “Thomas” live in such a town as WT? Pray tell? Would “Thomas” want to help educate & organize pick-ups from hundreds upon hundreds of summer vacationers who are completely unaware that their unopened non-perishable items can be donated to the Martha’s Vineyard Food Pantry at vacation’s end? I would love to have Mr./Mrs. Thomas’ amazing financial wizard who can see far ahead in time…who had the gift to guide his/her client…30 years into the future to the year of 2015 when the median property value in Dukes County was $660,800 while the median income for a year-round household income was only $64,222. I would love to be a “fly on the wall” if “Thomas” took one step into a house listed on Martha’s Vineyard at a $331,100 sales price. (Shhh…That was median value of house in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 2015.) It would be a tear-down or need complete renovation if there was even a house on the market for that price today! Maybe “Thomas” would consider handing out blankets at one of the churches who open their doors to those who just didn’t “plan ahead”…or maybe weren’t born with a silver spoon in their month. Most of know the truth in that infamous line, “It takes a lot of money to be poor on Martha’s Vineyard.”

  3. We didn’t get many details, but apparently the man has a job at the VTA – he is not a welfare bum. Off island transportation workers, bus drivers and so forth, are able to support themselves and their families. How is it that here that is not the case? Are the wages comparable to similar off island jobs, or even consistent with the local economy? There are far too many jobs on this island that cannot support workers year round. We need to put on our thinking caps.

  4. I am so sad to read this story. I am lucky my parents helped me to buy/build a house here or I could never afford to live here. When I got married and started a family back in 1982 we were lucky to have a three bedroom house for 300. a month. We had the rental for 11 1/2 months out of the year. The owners came down for two weeks every summer and we moved out, sometimes camping at MV Campgrounds. but it worked. we just were lucky. now we have two grown children and grandchild all living in the same home. The going rate for rentals are more then our mortgage. We were lucky and I know it. But like I said if it were not for the help of my parents I would not be here. Its a shame that the Mastromonacos fall short too little for the bank and too much for assistance. It breaks my heart. They have family here and a beautiful son that requires special needs. They are great people kind and loving. Maybe something good will come from someone who reads this story. Shame on the people with Nasty comments. Thinking caps can really help, or even a co-signer.

  5. Thomas makes an interesting point, “you either figure it out or you don’t”. What he is referring to is what I will broadly call “the Island economic equation”. Obviously he has figured it out for himself, and there is no fault in that. But the time has come when even that acuity will not be able to fully serve the next generation. We are all in the same “boat” here, as it were. If we do not make the necessary changes to the “equation”, that is “figure it out collectively”, Little Fishers Island looms on the horizon. I do hope that a benefactor will step forward to assist the family in question, but if changes are not made here soon, this scenario will be repeated with increasing frequency.

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