Island business owner hits the employee-housing wall

Martha’s Vineyard restaurateur Jo Maxwell says price gouging for substandard housing is a recipe for disaster.

The permanent staff at Chesca's restaurant includes, from left, Chef Jean, John Tau, owners David Joyce and Jo Maxwell, Chris Christie, Carrie-Lynn Whitney, and Cindy Curran. — Photo by Michael Cummo

The warm breezes, ringing cash registers, and sunny skies of the Vineyard summer are just weeks away, but uncertainty clouds the horizon for business owners who are still scrambling to find shelter for their seasonal employees. Jo Maxwell, chef and co-owner of the highly regarded Chesca’s Restaurant in Edgartown for the past 21 years, is one of them.

“This year we’ve already had 14 very qualified, experienced staff from New York City and other places, who really wanted to come here, but had to back out because they couldn’t find housing,” she told The Times. “This isn’t just happening to us. A lot of business owners I’ve talked with are desperate.”

Ms. Maxwell said she’s thankful for her core crew of Islanders, who will staff the restaurant during the shoulder season. “Without the Islanders, we couldn’t be open,” she said. When summer arrives, Ms. Maxwell said the popular bistro will be staffed by eight Islanders, three American employees from off-Island, and nine foreign students on J-1 visas.

Ms. Maxwell said her search for shelter for off-Island help has been a full-time job, and that she’s never seen such a dismal housing climate. “Landlords should be able to make money, but it’s gouging at this point,” she said. “I saw a room in a house with no kitchen privileges for $1,600 a month, and a one-room cabin with an outhouse going for $3,000 a month.

I thought I was on Candid Camera,” she said, referring to the long-running TV show that pioneered the hidden camera/practical joke format. “It has truly reached an obscene level. We’ve spent $3,000 in deposits so far. One of the places I rented is a shed. In normal conditions, I wouldn’t put my lawnmower in it. But it’s still a lot nicer than most of the places I’ve seen. The only thing you can find for under $800 a month is either a basement with no windows or an attic with no ventilation.”

Recipe for disaster
Ms. Maxwell said in “olden days,” she and her husband, co-owner and chef David Joyce, rented an entire house for their employees, but after 10 years, the cost became prohibitive. “If we did that now, it would eat up at least 70 percent of our profit,” she said. Since then, Ms. Maxwell’s heard a litany of housing horror stories from her employees.

“One of my chefs lived in the house where the landlord came barging in with a chainsaw,” she said, referring to the June 2013 incident when a landlord made a predawn raid with a revving chainsaw on a four-bedroom house in Oak Bluffs that he’d rented to 14 people.

“We live on an Island where you have to get a permit to build a doghouse, and that’s great. But there’s no monitoring of occupancy bylaws, there’s no monitoring of the health and safety codes, and there’s no fair market value anymore. This isn’t just affecting [restaurants], it also affects the retail shops,” she said. “No one is going to have any help anymore.”
As the domestic seasonal labor has been increasingly priced out of Martha’s Vineyard, “J-1s” have become increasingly important. A salient fact regarding the J-1 workers is that “they do not have to earn a living. They are subsidized, so they can actually get by,” Ms. Maxwell said.

But they too may soon be in short supply.
“The word from many of the sponsor companies is that soon the Vineyard will not be offered as a place of work because of the housing problem,” Ms. Maxwell said. “Towns on the Cape, and other tourist towns like Portsmouth and Kennebunkport, are actually affordable. You can get a two-bedroom house in Chatham a mile from the beach for the price of a room here.”

Ms. Maxwell repeatedly expressed concern that the housing shortage is also taking a toll on the Island at large. “It is not just our tourist season workforce that can’t afford to live here. Islanders can’t. Children who were raised here can’t. Doctors, nurses, teachers, the foundation of the Vineyard, can’t find a place to live. There has to be some leverage.”

Unsocial media
Ms. Maxwell recently wrote about her Candid Camera moment on the MV Rentals Facebook page. She was stunned by the backlash. “I’m getting hate mail,” she said. “People are saying, ‘Get off the Island if you don’t like it.’”

Ms. Maxwell said a blogger threatened to post on Yelp that he or she got food poisoning at Chesca’s. Another called her a hypocrite because she has a pasta entrée for $21 on her menu. “I’m extremely careful about what I put on social media, and I was a little glib.” she said. “But I really did feel like I was on Candid Camera.”

In response to her digital flogging, Ms. Maxwell started the Facebook page “Hope for Housing” to give the conversation some positive momentum.

“I started the group because I couldn’t bear the haters anymore,” she said. “I want to try to create a group of people who are seriously trying to bring change about.” Ms. Maxwell stressed that the solution to the problem is attainable in the short term.

“A lot of people think it’s complicated, but it really isn’t,” she said. “We’re not talking about building affordable housing, or changing rules and regulations, and going to selectmen’s meetings. We’re just asking landlords to come down to more reasonable rents, to $700 to $800 for a room, instead of $1,200 to $1,400. That’s all it would take.”