Seventeen local restaurants band together for the Island Housing Trust

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The exterior of Vineyard Haven's newest restaurant, Copper Wok. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

This week, make Sunday dinner count.

On Sunday, May 17, a number of local restaurants are working together to raise funds for the Island Housing Trust (IHT) through an Island-wide Dine to Donate event. Although individual restaurants have organized similar events with various charities and organizations in the past, this is the first time that restaurant owners have united to coordinate their efforts on the same day for the same cause.

Seventeen restaurants will participate, and will donate 10 percent of all their food sales after 5 pm to the IHT. The initiative is the brainchild of restaurateur J.B. Blau, owner of the two Sharky’s Cantinas, Copper Wok, the Martha’s Vineyard Chowder Co., and the LoFT game room. Both Sharky’s regularly host Dine to Donate events for local nonprofits, but this time Mr. Blau recruited fellow eateries in order to the extend the reach of the effort.

The IHT is a building development and land steward organization. As stated on the IHT website, “The Island Housing Trust supports a diverse and vital community on the Island of Martha’s Vineyard by creating and sustaining permanently affordable housing solutions, both rental and ownership.”

“We’re a nonprofit, which distinguishes us from the other housing organizations,” says Development Manager Sophie Abrams. The IHT relies heavily on donations. Its big fundraiser of the year, the Summer Benefit Brunch, will take place at Island Alpaca this year on August 16.

According to a press release issued by the IHT on the upcoming Dine to Donate event, “These funds will contribute to the creation of permanently affordable workforce housing on the Island, and will help IHT realize our goal of creating 180 affordable homes by 2020. Creation of these homes benefits the Island community as a whole by providing stable, quality housing to the people who make up the backbone of our community: teachers, hospital workers, Steamship Authority employees, police officers, and local business owners.”

Commenting on the Dine to Donate event, Ms. Abrams says, “It’s an easy way for people to come out and enjoy a meal and help the Island Housing Trust.”

Mr. Blau has a vested interest in helping to support the IHT’s efforts. As a business owner, he struggles every year to find housing for many of his employees.

“I’ve turned into a real estate agent,” says Mr. Blau. “I’m literally having trouble managing my business anymore. Most of my time right now is spent on the hiring process and the housing process, finding housing for my year-rounders, and trying to find housing seasonally. We rent year-round houses for our staff. Our focus is to try to keep our year-rounders here. It’s a little overwhelming.”

Mr. Blau’s concerns are shared by other business owners on the Island. “It’s not a story I feel remotely alone in,” he says. “Everyone I talk to says they have the same nightmares. We’re going to have to all get together on this or we’re going to go out of business.”

Support for the initiative was easy to obtain: “Once I was able to get in touch with people, it didn’t take long. Owners got on board shockingly fast. This is the issue that’s going to drive us forward. We can talk about the food costs and the energy costs. Those can be dealt with. Housing is the real issue. They have yet to create a robot that can serve or make drinks.”

In March, members of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and the IHT met with a group of around 30 local business owners at the Copper Wok to discuss the problem of workforce housing. Mr. Blau, who says he employs about 250 people during the summer months, was very vocal at that gathering.

“We’ve been working to try to see if there’s a way to consolidate what’s going on with housing and try to bring the different groups together,” says Mr. Blau. “There are a couple of different missions. Fundraising is one. Publicity is another one — getting the message out. I thought we could knock off both of those if we did something we’ve never done before. This is a way to get the people who are as affected with staffing issues as anyone to take a lead role and bond together to raise awareness.”

Mr. Blau notes that he has been aware of the lack of affordable housing on the Island since he moved here in 1997, but says that he has seen the problem reach critical mass more recently: “Weekly rental conversions are taking away the summer housing market. We’re losing our inventory of housing.” He believes that newer owner-rental services like Airbnb have exacerbated the problem.

However, he finds hope in the fact that more people are becoming aware of the issue: “I think the spotlight is getting brighter and brighter. The point is really to get the ball rolling. At some point people are going to have to come up with some concrete solutions. There’s a definite trajectory. There’s a definite path to success, but we’ve got to get as many people as possible on the train moving forward.”

The following restaurants will participate in the Dine to Donate event on Sunday, May 17: Offshore Ale Co., Martha’s Vineyard Chowder Co., Copper Wok, Sharky’s Cantina (both locations), the LoFT, Jimmy Seas Pan Pasta, Rockfish, the Wharf Pub, Coop de Ville, Water Street Restaurant, Henry’s Hotel Bar, Chesca’s Restaurant, Rocco’s Pizzeria, Wolf’s Den Pizzeria, Edgartown Pizza, and the Pizza Place.

To learn more about the Island Housing Trust, visit its website, ihtmv.org.