Houses on the Move: Who's who for dinner?

Susan and Rob Hughes with event co-chairs Kenn Karakul and Suzanne Lanzone. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Last year's hosts Susan (left) and Rob Hughes (right) with event co-chairs Kenn Karakul and Suzanne Lanzone. Photo by Ralph Stewart

By Joyce Wagner - July 20, 2006

On a long, wide, honey-colored table in Vineyard Haven, decisions are being made that allow year-round Islanders to remain on the Island. It sits in the conference room at the Vineyard Housing Office, a two-story structure tucked behind a food establishment on State Road.

A major component of this multi-faceted organization is the Rental Conversion Plan (RCP), which provides rental subsidies for mostly middle-income Vineyarders.

Margaret Mirko, an Island bartender, gardener, and cleaning lady, will be the first to laud those benefits. A year-rounder left habitat-challenged after a divorce, Margaret desperately desired to maintain split custody of her young daughter - nearly impossible if she was forced to move off-Island. Margaret received rental assistance from RCP and eventually was able to purchase her own home after winning a lottery that made her eligible to buy.

Not only did Margaret qualify for RCP aide, she also worked at the VHO for a time. "I think a lot of people who came in were in a similar situation as me," she recalls. "They split up and somebody got the house. Then to be a part of their kids' lives, they had to find a way (to stay on the Vineyard). Moving off the Island is not an option, because you kind of vacate yourself from your child's life."

RCP is currently assisting more than 50 families with up to 50 percent of their rent - up from 18 families in 2002. Not all of the beneficiaries are dependent on finding housing to keep their families together, but the Island depends on them to stay. They are working families - firemen, teachers, administrators, construction workers, and restaurant and shop staff - the people who keep the Island running. These are not indigent people with little or no income, but middle class folks whose earnings would provide adequate housing in a town or city with a less inflated real estate market. According to information provided by the Island Affordable Housing Fund (IAHF), "The median sales price for all homes sold (on Martha's Vineyard) increased at a rate more than 10 times faster than wages from 2001 to 2004."

Terri Keech administers the RCP program from A to Z. She solicits potential landlords, screens potential tenants, verifies income information, determines the amount of subsidies, creates leases, and pulls together a simple contract between landlord and RCP. "We serve a really wide range of people, really essential to our community," she asserts. "The feedback I've gotten over the last four years is that basically without this program, [the recipients] would have left the Island."

David Vigneault, executive director of Dukes County Regional Housing Authority, is the facts and figures guy. He provides a HUD table dated March, 2006, with figures indicating that in Dukes County the median income for a family of four is $68,300. "We're dealing with folks at 50-80 percent of median income," he explains, "which, on this Island is a salary that you could take most places in the country and people would say, 'What does that have to do with affordable housing?' It's an extremely unique situation here." There are approximately 50 singles and/or families currently wait-listed for rental assistance.

RCP has been level-funded at $3,000 per year for the last 10 years by IAHF through a program called "Houses on the Move." They're holding a gala fundraising event - or, more precisely, several gala events - this Saturday. For the third year in a row, the organization will be sponsoring "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," which they describe as "an island-wide dinner party to beat all dinner parties."

Participants will eat, drink, and rub elbows at soirées spread throughout the Island, each with a different theme. Surprise guest celebrities from the worlds of art, politics and entertainment will provide some of the fun and guests can meet before and after the dinner parties for drinks and/or dancing.

The evening begins with a cocktail party on an Oyster Pond estate before participants head for the various gatherings whose themes include "Boogie Nights" (disco dancing on Edgartown Harbor), "Legal Eagles" (law and social justice on the South Shore of Chilmark), "Literary Stargazing" (meet an acclaimed author at Chilmark's Brookside Farm), "Magical Mystery" (at a Herring Creek estate), "Music of the Night" (high above Edgartown harbor), "Pirates of Menemsha Pond" (treasure hunting off North Road), "Politics Aside" (political pundits in Chilmark), "Says Who? Says You" (NPR radio show host at Stonewall Beach), "Share the Spotlight" (famous legend on Starbuck Neck), "Slow Food, Fast Crowd" (victuals and jazz on Cow Bay), and "Surprise Me" (for the truly adventurous).

After the individual festivities, participants are invited to a post-party dance at Outerland (which is not included in the $500 event ticket price but available separately on a first come, first served basis).

According to Emily Levett, executive director of IAHF, past celebs have included Senator Barbara Boxer and Representative Thomas Delahunt; authors Phil Craig, Linda Fairstein, and Steve Raichlen; pundits Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Allan Dershowitz; sports luminaries K.C. Jones and Red Auerbach; and media stars Bob Villa, Larry David, and Carly Simon. The biggest surprise of all occurred two years ago when celebrants at one party found their cars being valet parked by late-night host David Letterman.

This year's event, with the sub-title "The Grand Finale," will be the last of its kind for this organization. Next years' fundraiser will be a collaboration with Plum TV for a telethon of sorts, the details of which are currently being worked out. "We like to keep things fresh and interesting," Emily Levett explains.

While the events provide fun and entertainment for those fortunate enough to go, the $200,000 or so raised every year provides two-thirds of the yearly funding to RCP. That makes several Island families fortunate enough to stay.

Tickets for "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner III: The Grand Finale" are available through IAHF. Call 696-0943.

Joyce Wagner is a frequent contributor to The Times. Her book, "Random Overthoughts," a collection of her humor columns from the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, is available at Island bookstores.