Affordable housing - we can do it, and we must
It was a year ago this week.
I was sitting in the living room of what was, at that time, my vacation rental, trying to suck the last precious hours from the holiday weekend, when my girlfriend Susan sat down next to me, handed me a copy of The Times, and said, "Why don't you do that." Crudely circled in Sharpie was the want ad for the executive director of the Island Affordable Housing Fund.
The idea was ludicrous, of course. My family, my friends, my animals (we have a farm) - my life - was in New York. After leaving my former job, I was looking for what was next, but Martha's Vineyard? The last thing I wanted was to leave the comfort of my home and the last thing the Island needed was another full-time New Yorker. Out of respect to Susan, who had watched me chop wood for the last two months and had just about enough of it, I agreed to apply. I wasn't going to get the job anyway.
I arrived 28 days later after a whirlwind of negotiations, bags in hand and my beloved Jets cap firmly upon my head, to seven degrees and an overcast sky. If I had been just out of college, I would have sprinted back to the ferry. I was alone, cold, and homesick. Nothing felt right.
Then two days later, I was grabbing a sandwich in Vineyard Haven, when a voice came from behind, "You're new here, aren't you?" This middle-aged man started a conversation with me in the middle of the sidewalk, and I gave him my life story. He sincerely wanted to know the "new guy" walking around his town, and I just needed to know that I had done the right thing. Now, I don't claim this was an "It's A Wonderful Life" moment. I wasn't staring over a bridge railing, and he definitely wasn't Clarabelle. But that one act of Island kindness changed everything for me. I realized that I could call my new home, home.
Speaking of home, I was homeless this summer.
It seemed like more of a conversation starter in the beginning. "Do you believe I work at the housing office, and I don't have a place to live?" Not knowing that I would be taking the job, the previous summer I had rented my home in Edgartown for the month of August. As winter turned into spring and then into summer, I started to get uncomfortable with the prospect of being turned out of my own home.
You know, many of us learn valuable lessons by barreling through life blissfully ignorant, and so it was in my case. I just assumed there would be a house unused, a spare room offered, a hotel room reasonable. There would be something. Come July, on the eve of our housing fund fundraising telethon, I now was too busy too look. Still, something in the pit of my stomach told me that I had waited too long, that I was not being protective of my family (Susan had now moved up and started working at the chamber, and in August I also had my two boys), and that things would not come easy to me when it came to housing all of us. I was right.
Through the month of August, we moved five times. One week here, three days there, Susan and I tried to make it an adventure for the kids. Where would we wind up tonight?
Come 3 pm some days, if we didn't have a place to go that night, I would begin the process of calling around to try to tie up an offer made the week before. I found Susan and myself anxious at the situation we were in, embarrassed that we had to have our hat out to our friends, angry that I had put my family in this position. We did have many to thank - Philippe Jordi and Randi Baird for securing us the Island Co-Housing Common House for a few days, Sam and Ali Berlow for getting us a few days at Sam's mother's basement apartment, Michael Manfriedi for allowing us the final few days of his rental cottage as he moved into his new house (I had to teach the kids the earth-friendliness of using an outhouse, to much skepticism), and the Mansion House for one glorious night with a hot shower and TV at a fraction of their August asking price, because I may have had that "about-to-go-postal" look.
After my tenants had left and as I sat on my deck, finally back in my home, I felt more appreciative of the roof over my head than I ever had in my life. I now understood the "Vineyard Shuffle," the twice-a-year upheaval when Islanders who rent are forced from their homes when the summer rental season begins. I also received a big dose of humility. Since then, when I go out to "sell" my non-profit and myself, I do it with a mission that no one on the Vineyard should ever feel like I felt those 28 days in August. That's a feeling that one has to learn firsthand.
When I was a little kid, on New Year's Day I would silently think back to all the good things that happened to me the previous year and then freshly greeted the new one. Heck, I still do it. But this past year, there are so many little things that put a smile on my face, I really didn't want 2007 to end - Trip Barnes lending me a truck to move my animals up because he knew I missed them. Coop teaching Susan, the kids, and me how to clam and allowing me to connect with my boys in a whole different way. Painting Candy and Dennis daRosa's horse barn as we talked about nothing. Learning that you have to say "Go Sox" instead of goodbye when you finish a phone conversation during the season. Listening to Willy Mason on a hot summer evening at the FARM Institute as that Katama breeze blows. Too many to count.
I look towards 2008 with optimism for my beloved Island. To be honest, there are too many good-hearted people and more than enough money available for Martha's Vineyard not to come out this New Year even stronger than it began. Just do me a favor - when you see a new face on the street, stop and say hello. That little bit of Island hospitality may make a difference, as it did for this stranger in paradise.
Patrick R. Manning, a former New York state legislator, is the executive director of the Island Affordable Housing Fund.