Putting a face on affordable housing

After years of uncertainty, two Island families find a place to call home.

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Tucker Smith, Brandie Lewis, and their daughter Annie are all smiles in their new apartment at Village Court, in Tisbury. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

This is the third article in a series examining the critical shortage of affordable housing on Martha’s Vineyard and its effects on the community. The series began on February 18 with “Martha’s Vineyard housing shortage reaches critical mass.” On March 5, “Vineyard homeless census raises questions, provides few answers” examined homelessness.

The demand for, and the scarcity of, affordable housing options on Martha’s Vineyard is unprecedented, according to the people who work on the front lines. Affordable housing goals set forth in the prescient 2001 Housing Needs Assessment (HNA), and subsequent revisions of the study, have consistently fallen short. According to the 2013 HNA, the combination of escalating land values, high construction costs, zoning restrictions, and a pervasive “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) attitude, continue to make a dire situation even worse.

But there are success stories, created in large part by a few small agencies staffed by a handful of people, who stay the course and chip away at this enormous problem, one family at a time. The Island Housing Trust (IHT) is one of those agencies. Executive Director Philippe Jordi recently took The Times to meet two families who, after years of shuffling from one difficult living situation to another, have found permanent homes, in the form of affordable rental housing that was developed by the IHT.

Two-bedroom mansion

Brandie Lewis sat in her sunny living room, bouncing her laughing infant Annie on her leg, as Annie’s father, Tucker Smith, a carpenter with William Meegan Fine Carpentry, got ready for work. Zak, their chummy lab-mix dog, circled the room, holding his rawhide chew toy in his mouth like a cigar.

This scene of simple domesticity represents a hard-earned win for this young family, and for the people who worked behind the scenes to get them there.

The two-bedroom apartment is in a newly renovated six-unit building at Village Court, a “workforce housing” community developed by the IHT, tucked away off State Road in Vineyard Haven.

“We were living in a small one-bedroom basement apartment in Oak Bluffs before we moved here,” Ms. Lewis said.

“It was basically just one room,” Mr. Smith said. “We were pretty much on top of each other.”

“Now I feel like I’m living in a mansion,” Ms. Lewis said.

Both Ms. Lewis and Mr. Tucker were born and raised on the Island. Ms. Lewis grew up doing the Island shuffle on a regular basis, and continued doing so as an adult until she found a year-round rental in West Tisbury. “I lived there for eight years,” she said. “The building should have been condemned, but it was a year-round rental so I hung in there. Then the rat problem got really bad. When I told my landlord he said, ‘Well, you can deal with it.’”

Ms. Lewis said she applied to the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority (DCRHA) last spring after she found out she was pregnant. To become eligible, applicants must show proof of income and proof of residency.

A few months later, Ms. Lewis saw a post for the apartment on the M.V. housing rentals Facebook page and called the DCRHA immediately. “I said, ‘Barbara, I want this place!’”

In early December, DCRHA administrative coordinator Barbara Hoffman called Ms. Lewis with the good news.

“I was speechless. I just cried,” Ms. Lewis said. “It’s such a huge relief knowing we never have to move again. The stress of wondering if the owner is going to sell, then finding a place, and moving, is so big. Now the financial burden is much less. Our relationship is better. We’re so much happier and at peace. Sometimes I feel bad because I know so many people who are having trouble finding a place to live.”

Ms. Lewis said affordable housing also allows her to stay home with Annie. “I’m so fortunate to be a stay-at-home mom,” she said. “Without this place I’d be working and paying for childcare. Being able to stay home to raise my daughter is priceless.”

The apartments at Village Court are targeted to the 60 percent area median income (AMI) and below, where the need is greatest, according to Mr. Jordi.

A Village Court two-bedroom apartment is about 700 square feet, and the rent is $1,030 for households earning 60% or less of AMI. Rents for the one-bedroom and other two-bedrooms at Village Court are $701 and $869 respectively, for households earning 50% or less of AMI.

Sepiessa spells home

Joey Nascimento sat at his kitchen table early Monday morning, hair askew, looking like a man who had just worked a double shift the night before at the Steamship Authority.

“I never refuse a shift,” he said. “No matter how cold it is.”

Mr. Nascimento came to the U.S. from Brazil 27 years ago. After five years in Boston, he moved to the Island, doing jobs that needed to be done, driving a truck, working at BFI, and eventually getting his foot in the door at the SSA, working there part-time for six years before being brought on full-time. He and Gisele married 16 years ago. In the summer, their growing family lived in a trailer on a farm where Mr. Nascimento earned the rent by mowing with the tractor. For years, the family did a transcontinental Vineyard shuffle back to Brazil, while Mr. Nascimento stayed and worked on the Island, sometimes separating them for months at a time.

“Those summers in the camper, we all had the same bedroom,” Mr. Nascimento said, laughing. The summer trailer was sometimes used before the temperatures warmed. “I remember one time we went in the trailer in early April and it was crazy cold,” Mr. Nascimento said, as Ms. Nascimento nodded in agreement. “There was also a winter where we had to move houses twice,” Ms. Nascimento said, as Mr. Nascimento nodded in weary agreement. In the winter, they shuffled to winter rentals in West Tisbury and the down-Island towns, and sometimes to Brazil.

“The plan was always to live here,” he said.

The Nascimentos were living in Oak Bluffs when they got the call from Barbara Hoffman in early December.

“I couldn’t believe it. I cried,” Ms. Nascimento said, smiling at her husband.

“It was just like winning the lottery,” Mr. Nascimento said. “It was a very nice Christmas present.”

Mr. Nascimento said he’d forewarned his Oak Bluffs landlord that he might have to move if he won the housing lottery. The landlord didn’t object then, nor did he when Mr. Nascimento moved out. “He was happy for us,” Ms. Nascimento said.

The smell of fresh paint is still in the air. There’s not a scuff on the risers of the stairs that lead to Joey and Gisele’s room and their daughter Emanuelle’s room. Their teenage son Gabriel has a room on the first floor. It’s the first time the children have had their own rooms. For now, the rooms are sparsely appointed with the basics. Gisele said she wants to take her time furnishing their new home. For the first time, she doesn’t have to consider the difficulty of moving the furniture she selects. And she doesn’t have to rush. She’s going to be here awhile.

A three-bedroom unit at Sepiessa Apartments on Clam Point Road in West Tisbury is about 1,100 square feet. Rent is $1,124 for a household earning 60% or less of the AMI. Rents for the one-bedroom and two-bedroom at Sepiessa are $706 and $840 respectively, for households earning 50 percent or less of the AMI.