At Large : Roof over my head
The first place I lived when I moved to the Vineyard in 1970 was a boat, 22 feet long with a deck that leaked. Rain poured through the deck seams. She was anchored close to shore, off the Owen Park dock. In inclement weather, my German shepherd, who hated getting wet, asked to be put ashore. He preferred to sleep beneath an overturned skiff on the beach, where it was drier.
When fall came, I moved ashore to a winter rental in Oak Bluffs near the Lagoon, an A-frame with a gas-fired floor furnace under the stairs. In general, the three stair treads immediately above the furnace were comfortably warm. A baby rabbit, cold and apparently dead, revived itself after spending a half hour on one of those stair treads, in the steamy updraft from that furnace. In the spring, it was back to the boat.
(I've driven those narrow, quiet tracks near the Lagoon shore several times in the last few years, looking for the modern remains of that house, but it's gone or transformed, and nothing looks the same, so I can't figure out where it was.)
I think there were two winters in that A-frame and two summers on that boat. Then there were four or five years in a house that doubled as a bed and breakfast to pay the bills. I sold the boat to make the down payment on the mortgage.
Then there was the old Hoft farm, now home to the Nature Conservancy, for one winter. Marguerite Alisio owned it then.
After that, it was a tiny West Tisbury farmhouse for which the rent was feed the cows and the pigs, pick the corn, and bale the hay. Ultimately, I sold the B&B to make the down payment on the farm.
After the farm, there were two winters in a summer house with electric heat and not enough of it. The place was built on pilings over the beach just east of the Tashmoo entrance, and it stared right at Vineyard Sound. The northwesterly gales that followed each passing winter low pressure system blew through the front windows the way the rainwater fell through the deck of that old 22-footer. The pipes froze beneath the building, and the kids and wife spent the wildest days in an upstairs bathroom where an electric heater-blower kept the air temperature above freezing. I think the rent was $500 a month, and the electricity was $600.
There were two summers in dear, wild Mike Wild's tattered shack at the edge of Slough Cove. Mike, gone but never forgotten, lived out back and watched over us like a leprechaun that had bloomed. He also kept watch over his eccentric plumbing. No one else could have figured it out if anything had gone wrong.
Lots of Islanders have housing Odysseys to tell, and most are more harrowing than mine. I was lucky. A few years ago, when the Island Affordable Housing Fund released its first housing needs assessment, the narrative account of the problem was chillier than that uninsulated beach house on a February day:
"In the 1990s, Martha's Vineyard added 2,700 seasonal and part-time homes and 1,000 owner-occupied homes but built fewer than 50 new year-round rental apartments and distributed less than 20 youth lots for affordable homeownership. During the same period, local employers added more than 1,500 relatively low-paying service and retail jobs. Here are some of the numbers that illustrate the imbalance between Island housing costs and wages: high home prices 85 percent above the statewide median; high rents at least 30 percent above the statewide median; high rents at least 30 percent over the statewide median; and low wages 27 percent below the statewide average."
High costs, low pay. But we knew that. What does it mean?
Across the demographic of ordinary folk - people who grew up here, skilled and well-paid workers from the Vineyard or the mainland, older Islanders of moderate income - few will be able to become our long-term neighbors. It may be that national economic conditions will blight the Vineyard's popularity and cripple its 40 years of robust growth, who can say? But is that a basis for hopefulness? Perhaps it is, but only here.
Today, we know, Bradley Square serving as the most recent evidence, that making affordable housing is difficult, and when the first decade of the 21st century ends, the betting here is that our record will be little improved over the record of the 1990s and certainly not a record of triumph over the problem.
After all, the challenge issued at the beginning of this decade was the need for at least 100 to 150 new houses per year, to rent or to own, and all must be settled, long-term affordable places to live. And that pace must be maintained annually. The sticker price was a breathtaking $28.5 million.
Collaterally, and sadly, the focus on housing, which has sharpened substantially over the past five years, has never embraced the need for steady, substantial economic growth, which is, after all, the engine of affordability. Rather, we appear to have decided to place a limited number of families in affordable dwellings, with caps on the appreciation of real estate value in what is for most Americans their largest single investment, and to restrain economic growth so that moderate income becomes a life sentence. It's not a recipe for community.