Mathea Morais was interviewed by Eunki Seonwoo.
I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, but we summered here my whole life. We used to venture across half the country every June, and then back at the end of August. I spent every summer here growing up; [they were] very different realities — St. Louis and Chilmark. But it was a really wonderful existence. St. Louis is 100° every day starting like June 1, so it was always a crazy thing to be packing our sweatshirts and stuff to come up here.
My family and I moved here year-round in 2008. We lived in my mother’s home in Chilmark for nine years and [have now] been living in this property for four years.
My mother has retired and moved here. Prior to that, my father retired and moved here. And now my sister is living here, so, you know, bit by bit everybody sort of came here. We all came home.
We were able to win a spot in the housing lottery, and build our own home in Chilmark. It was 2015 when we started the whole loan process, and we started building soon after that, and it took a little while to build the home, a mile away from where I grew up in the summer. My husband [built] it by himself; he had some help doing some of the framing. By 2017, we had moved into our new house.
I am a teacher at the Charter School. I’ve been there close to 10 years now. I’m also a writer, so I’ve done journalism, which is why I’m so sympathetic to what you’re doing right now. I have a novel called “There You Are,” which came out in October 2019, so it had a little bit of life before COVID. I’m also the director of the literary arts program at Featherstone. My husband is a painter and a potter, but like everybody else on Martha’s Vineyard, we have lots of jobs, so he’s also a carpenter, and that’s how he was able to build our home for us.
Nabs Corner is the name of the affordable housing [project]. There was a lot about it that was lovely. My [Chilmark] neighbor Frank Fenner pulled the [winning] piece [of paper] out of the bucket [during the housing lottery]. Another person who got one of the lots, kind of diagonal to me, is Caitlin Cook, and she’s someone I grew up with. I think the process — trying to gather information, submitting all that paperwork, all of that is daunting. At one point I took a look at the down payment and the closing costs, and I thought, “This isn’t affordable. What part about this is affordable?” I am so incredibly grateful and I will … it’s probably not possible to verbally express it, even though I’m a writer, how grateful I am that we have this land and this home, and I would do it over and over and over and over again. So, it was absolutely worth it, but it’s a challenge, and I’m glad I don’t ever have to do that again. I’m glad that this is my home for the rest of my life. And that was a decision based on the rules and the regs of getting one of these pieces of land. It’s a 99-year lease on the land, you can’t sell the home and make a profit, you can’t rent the home out. You have to be very clear that this is where you’re going to live for the rest of your life, and we were like, “This is what we want, this is what we’re doing.” But, for someone who isn’t so sure of that, I’m not sure that the process I went through would make sense. It’s a beautiful thing for us, and that we don’t have to worry about it, and we can afford it. In all honesty, the mortgage payments we make every month are totally affordable.
Once you make it through that first sort of daunting task of putting down a big chunk of money, it is an affordable process. But that initial step, I think, is something that probably holds people back, because who has an extra 40 grand lying around? Especially when you’re trying to make it here. Cost of living is so high, it’s hard to put away money. Luckily, we were living in my mother’s home, so things were sort of set up for us to be successful, whereas I don’t know what we would have done if we were in a different circumstance. And the fact my husband could build our home — we didn’t have to pay someone else to build our home. But at the same time, he had to stop working for two years, and he really wasn’t able to earn an income while he was building our home. So we had to sort of make that adjustment, as well as, “OK, we don’t have to pay someone to build it, but we also are coming down to being a one-income home,” so that was also a challenge.
Getting to the place where we are, where we’ve started paying off some debts and we’ve settled in, and we’ve got a lawn and a garden — it all feels completely worth it. But I don’t want to minimize the challenge it was. It’s not like you snapped your fingers and you got a home kind of thing.
I think there was pressure of needing to get it done so we could move out of my mother’s home, since it was a family home and other family members were also living there. We’d been living there for nine years, so that was challenging. The challenge [getting] it done in the time allotted. When you get a construction loan, you don’t get 10 years to build the house. You need to get it done, and he was basically working alone. When you start thinking of the magnitude of what that means, it’s every single shingle, that’s every single window. That was a huge time commitment for him, which meant not being around family, being away from home, long, long hours, and not earning an income. So that was probably the biggest challenge.
After all that, it is absolutely beautiful. Every day I walk out of my room and am astonished at how beautiful my home is. I am astonished that I am living in such a beautiful place. I am blown away … part of the amazing thing about having your home be built by an artist is that every corner of the home is beautiful. So, what he built us is beyond anything I can imagine. And the fact we can live here and afford to live here … like I said, I don’t know if I can find the words to express how grateful I am. When COVID happened and we were locked in, I [said], “That’s fine with me, I’m in the most beautiful place in the world.” I’m in this home that was created for our family by our family, and it was just a time of really being in that space together that was very wonderful, when we weren’t feeling terrified of the rest of the world.
We have three daughters, but the two older daughters live off-Island right now. They’re both in college. One lives in Brooklyn and the other lives in Providence. It’s a wonderful place for them to come home to. It was unfortunate that by the time we were done, they were already out the door, so they didn’t live in it as their own for many years, but it’s a wonderful thing for them to have to come home to. Year-round it’s myself, my husband, and our 12-year-old daughter. And we have a flock of chickens and a dog. It was an amazing thing that we were able to get a dog. When you’re living in your own home, you don’t have to worry about whether somebody allows or doesn’t want to have animals. Those are the little things you don’t realize. But when you have your own home, you get to put the garden wherever you want, you get to have a flock of chickens without asking permission from someone else.
We worked with the Martha’s Vineyard Bank, and they were absolutely wonderful. There’s no one that I have come across in any step of the process that wasn’t in complete support of our having this home. So my experience with the Island community is that everybody here wants people to be able to afford to live here. They want people to have a place they can afford to live. And I see the community always sort of exhibiting and coming up and showing that. Everybody that we dealt with, from the people in the town hall in Chilmark and the people who came in to dig the holes, all of the independent contractors we dealt with, all of the different people we worked with were ready, willing, and able to make this happen. And that feels very Martha’s Vineyard to me. The people who live here … when they know you want to be a part of this community too, will really do what they can to help. It was really great.
There were four units [in the Nabs Corner affordable housing development]. We have wonderful neighbors, and I think everybody is just as thrilled as we are to have their homes. There’s beautiful trails behind my house I can walk on … it’s a pretty stunning place to live.