Home improvement is at hand for Island homeowners

From left: Tom Burke, Melissa Vincent, Eric Skogstrom and Leigh Gibson in front of Mr. Gibson's home, one of 47 TRI restoration projects completed this year. — Photo by Barry Stringfellow

On a recent Saturday, radial saws and pounding hammers pierced the morning quiet on Pine Street in Edgartown, as a crew from Tom Burke Builders performed major surgery on Leigh Gibson’s house.

A few blocks and a world away from the Federalist mansions of postcard Edgartown, Mr. Gibson’s 568-square-foot home was falling apart. A lifelong Islander, Mr. Gibson, 50, bought the house in 1997, the same year he suffered a stroke and spent 10 days in a coma. “According to the doctors, I’m a walking miracle,” he said with a gravelly laugh, as he watched his home deconstructed.

The ensuing years were difficult. Mr Gibson didn’t have a steady income until he qualified for social security disability in 2005. He managed to hang on to his home, but over 50 years of deferred maintenance — the house was refurbished in the late 1950s — had taken its toll. The roof leaked, the ceilings were caving in, the foundation was crumbling, the windows and doors needed replacing, the walls weren’t insulated and the antiquated heating system was too small for the house. “Things got pretty cool in the winter,” he said.

Many Islanders, for a variety of reasons, are in a similar bind to Mr. Gibson’s. According to the 2013 MVC Housing Assessment, the Island weekly wage is 71 percent of the state average, while the median home price is 54 percent over the state average. The report also stated that “affordable housing opportunities are critical for enabling essential workers to afford to live on the Island…There are still significant numbers of households who have very limited financial means and are likely confronting enormous challenges affording to live on the Vineyard who should be the main targets for housing assistance.” The report said almost half of the roughly 700 seniors on the Island have incomes less than $35,000 and estimated that as many as 30 percent of Vineyard households may qualify for housing assistance.

Available capital

The Resource Inc. (TRI) is a non-profit corporation that helps homeowners on the Cape and Islands, like Mr. Gibson, who are too stretched by their mortgage and property taxes to make needed improvements and who don’t qualify for a bank loan or refinancing. TRI offers qualified applicants a 15-year, no interest, forgivable loan, worth up to $35,000 for moderate restoration projects.

For the past eight years, Melissa Vincent has managed the the Martha’s Vineyard TRI office in Vineyard Haven. She reviews applications and contractor bids, coordinates work on numerous construction sites, and stretches every Community Development Block Grant dollar as far as it will go. Ms. Vincent estimates she’s supervised upwards of 425 moderate rehabilitation projects on the Vineyard since she started at TRI, and the company has completed over 525 projects since its inception 12 years ago.

Ms. Vincent, born and raised on the Island — MVRHS class of ’83 — is the daughter of Vineyard contractor Alan Norton. She had her own clothing store and worked as a buyer for department stores before landing at TRI eight years ago. “Never in my life could you have told me I would be talking about Andersen windows with my father at Thanksgiving dinner,” she said, shaking her head.

Standing at the construction site on Pine Street, Ms. Vincent leafs through a voluminous manila folder rested on the hood of general contractor Tom Burke’s truck. “For a lot of the homeowners, it takes everything they have just to hang on to their home,” she said. “There’s a lot of homes with 15 to 20 years of deferred maintenance. We work from the outside in — make sure the envelope is tight and keeps everyone safe and warm, then work our way inside. If we think it’s going to cost more than we can spend, then I start looking for funding from other sources.”

Ms. Vincent also spends time getting the word out about TRI. “I do a lot of talks at senior centers, libraries, Rotary clubs, wherever I can get somebody to listen,” she said. “It’s an amazing opportunity, as long as you make 80 percent or less of median income for Dukes County, we can come to your home and make improvements.” For 2013, this meant that a family of two making under $52,250 qualified for TRI assistance, and a family of four making under $65,300 also qualified.

Loan applicants don’t have to wait long for an answer. “We take a cursory glance and if it appears that they qualify, we let homeowners know pretty quickly that they’re eligible,” she said. There are currently nine applicants on the on Edgartown/Up Island waiting list, and 10 on the Oak Bluffs/Tisbury list.

“It’s a trust issue here,” said Ms. Vincent. “People are giving you all their financials. A lot of them finally own their homes and you’re telling them you’re going to put a lien on it. Although it’s a deferred forgivable lien, the word “lien” makes some people nervous. But it falls off one-fifteenth each year, there’s no interest and no repayment unless you sell the property. It’s completely wiped off the books after 15 years. It just prevents people from flipping the houses.”

Island wide support

Ms. Vincent said the success of the program is due in part to the different town governments working together on affordable housing. “It’s a collaborative effort,” she said. “It starts out with the towns. Kudos go to Oak Bluffs and Edgartown selectmen. They committed to being the lead grant towns. The Edgartown grants also cover Chilmark, Aquinnah, and West Tisbury. Oak Bluffs grants also cover Tisbury.” West Tisbury, due to its “needs score” is only eligible every other year.

Obtaining funds is a yearly competition and grants are not guaranteed. Ms. Vincent said Alice Boyd, grant guru and red tape wrangler from Bailey Boyd associates, has been essential in the equation. “Alice is amazing,” she said. “We couldn’t do this without her.”

Once an application is approved, TRI puts out an open call for contractors to work on grant-funded projects. It checks that contractors have the proper licenses, certifications, and insurance. By law, TRI must take lowest qualified bid. The homeowner can choose another contractor, but has to pay the difference.

“We could not do this program without the contractors that I have working for me,” said Ms. Vincent. “They don’t make a ton of money off these projects. These are projects Tom and Eric normally wouldn’t see.”

Although Burke Builders primarily builds custom homes — they just finished a four-year project in Squibnocket and have projects going in Katama and other parts of Edgartown — this will be the 12th project Mr. Burke and partner Eric Skogstrom have done for TRI this year.

“Normally, we wouldn’t ever have bid this project,” said Mr. Skogstrom.

“I was on the board of Habitat for Humanity for 10 years. I can tell you, this work is much more satisfying,” said Mr. Burke, as the Bruno’s dumpster behind him rapidly filled with the old guts of Mr. Gibson’s house. “You renovate somebody’s home, you also renovate part of their soul. The transition is dramatic. They become alive again. You see Christmas show up year round. And we do it in a short time. Two to three weeks, we’re done. Melissa makes the whole thing happen.”

This year, 47 TRI renovations have been competed and more will be done by year’s end — a blazing construction pace, not just for the Vineyard.

“My guys get six to eight weeks to finish a project,” said Ms. Vincent. “There’s no fooling around here.”

Mr. Burke heartily nodded in agreement. “I think she checks the boats to make sure we don’t go anywhere,” he said.

“It’s amazing how it works when there’s a woman behind the whip,” joked Ms. Vincent. Mr. Burke again heartily nodded in agreement.

Mr. Gibson watched the construction crew with palpable gratitude. Eighteen months ago, on the advice of a friend, he applied to TRI for help with his leaky roof, drooping ceilings, and lack of heat. When he moves back in on December 22, he’ll have a house that is dry and safe and warm.

“I can’t thank Melissa and these guys enough,” said Mr. Gibson. “This is just amazing.”