Madison Straus was excited when she was offered a position teaching health and physical education at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School last year. The former MVRHS graduate had just completed her master’s degree, in addition to welcoming her first child, Hughes, with her husband, Jesse.
Over the course of less than a year, Straus made the difficult decision to resign from the high school, as the young family was unable to secure housing.
Straus and her husband, who is employed by Vineyarder-founded Oceanworks, had looked forward to raising their growing family in close proximity to family, particularly Straus’ parents, owners of Edgartown’s well known Wheel Happy.
Although they knew to expect difficulties in the quest to buy property and lay down roots, Straus and her husband were hopeful that their growing family would be able to figure something out.
Straus had already been working as an events coordinator in addition to her full-time teaching responsibilities, but still, finding a long-term living arrangement proved to be an uphill battle.
Straus said that as a first-year teacher, supplementing her income was vital, as inexperienced teachers don’t make nearly as much as their seasoned colleagues. However, the affordable housing options, Straus said, are few and far between. Furthermore, “most teachers, if they’re with a spouse, don’t qualify, because you’re making too much money to qualify for affordable housing,” she said.
In the meantime, Straus, her husband, and baby Hughes were able to stay with her in-laws, but as any young family can imagine, Straus looked forward to having their own space. “They wanted their house back … it’s a family home,” she said.
In the attempts to find a suitable living situation, Straus harkened back to viewing a few houses that were at the low end of market offerings; still over a million dollars, and often not much bigger than 1,000 square feet.
“You go look at these houses and you’re really underwhelmed in their condition, and what they could offer our family,” she said, noting the absurdity of quality versus cost.
“You can’t fathom putting that much money into a home that is not worth that. Part of the problem is,” she said, “if you don’t buy it, there is someone else who will, for that asking price. And the prices they’re asking are astronomical.”
Regarding renting, Straus emphasized the difficulty of handling the already unpredictable rental market — particularly the “shuffle” — with an infant. Most of the rentals are seasonal, she said. “You get kicked out for the summer, because rent goes up. The rents are so high that you might as well be putting that money toward a million-dollar mortgage … There’s not a ton of options.”
“You can’t fathom putting that much money into a home that is not worth that. Part of the problem is. if you don’t buy it, there is someone else who will, for that asking price. And the prices they’re asking are astronomical.”
–Madison Straus, a teacher at MVRHS, who resigned because her family couldn’t find affordable housing
Even with financial help from their families — Straus’ parents considered selling their home to help mitigate the enormous expenditure — Straus said, property prices are so “outrageous” that they wouldn’t have felt right about placing such a burden on them.
Living on the Island, Straus said, “was something we’ve always wanted. And now that we’re moving off, we’ve both had to come to terms with this reality for now, and we’re excited to have a space for our family, but it’s not easy leaving the Island and the community.”
On having to leave her family, Straus said, “They’re really sad, obviously … it’s hard because they were looking forward to being able to be right down the street from their grandchildren, and be able to come over and visit.”
Ultimately, Straus and her husband came to the conclusion that staying on the Island was a detriment — financially and mentally — to their young family, triggering a move out of state. “We can’t put our lives on hold for this market,” she said.
All of this comes as teachers and the Martha’s Vineyard Educators Association (MVEA) are trying to shine a light on the need to give teachers a cost-of-living increase that can help them afford the Island.
When the three-year contract proposed by the MVEA initially called for a 6 percent increase for year one, and a 4 percent increase for years two and three, they were met with the district’s “best and final offer,” said MVEA reps, of a 2 percent increase for year one, followed by a 3 percent increase for years two and three.
The MVEA, in the attempt to come to terms, countered the offer, and proposed a 2 percent salary increase for year one and a 3.25 percent increase for the following two years. The district would not budge.
Meanwhile, Island public school administrators had recently been tapped to receive substantial raises to their salaries. At the June 8 Edgartown School Committee meeting, Superintendent Matthew D’Andrea proposed a 7.5 percent wage increase for fiscal year 2023 for Edgartown School Principal Shelley Einbinder-Fleischmann — and according to MVEA members present at the meeting, D’Andrea proposed similar increases for school admins Island-wide, the approval of which would be voted on by the All-Island School Committee. The proposed one-year increase for Einbinder-Fleischmann surpasses the MVEA’s three-year teacher contract counteroffer, which after lengthy negotiations, was ultimately denied. Later, D’Andrea told The Times that he has chosen to table those raises until after MVEA-school committee negotiations have found resolution.
But the ebb and flow of the ongoing negotiations is only part of the issue. D’Andrea called the housing crisis’ effect on teachers “an extraordinary challenge.” He said he meets with all new school staff hires; the first question to them being whether they have secured housing on the Island. “If they answer no,” he said, “usually we end up losing them, because of the challenges and cost of finding housing.”
D’Andrea said in his seven years as superintendent, the Vineyard school system “lose[s] an average of seven to 10 teachers a year” — due to housing-related struggles. This is not counting prospective hires who, after exploring housing options on the Island, choose not to even apply. When asked if this year has been worse compared with previous years, D’Andrea said, “Yeah, I think it is.”
“We are losing good teachers, there’s no doubt about it … because of the housing challenge,” he said, maintaining hope that efforts underway for mitigating the problem can offer some relief. “It is a crisis.”
Incoming Superintendent Richie Smith is also well aware of the current crisis, and the impact monumentally high real estate prices have on the school system. “We have lost staff this year for that reason. And we are, again, finding it [more] challenging to hire new staff members,” he said.
Recently, Smith said, “We weren’t able to hire a staff member, a really talented person, because of the cost of housing.”
Smith said what they’re finding is that those who rely on rented residences are losing those rentals as more owners are choosing to convert their homes to short-term rentals. Often the reason is “because [of] the ability for [homeowners] to really leverage a high amount of money for a one-week rental.”
“Our staff who are renting are being displaced, and not having a lot of luck finding something permanent,” he said.
Smith added, “There are more staff who are forced to do the shuffle,” having to move around week to week in order to get through the summer. Smith noted that in the past, teachers were often able to secure housing for the entirety of the school year, but due to the influx of seasonal residents, many of whom are finding themselves on the Island for longer periods of time — the shoulder seasons, mid to late spring, and early to mid-fall — school staff are “being displaced.” In addition to the infeasible cost, he said, is simply the lack of availability of housing. “I’ve been here 20 years, and I’ve never seen it like this,” he said.
Sent packing after 26 years
Susan Tenerowicz, a special needs teacher at the Edgartown School, has been living in the same house in Oak Bluffs for 26 years. A long-term renter, Tenerowicz was recently informed of her landlord’s intention to sell the property and — without warning — was contacted by a realtor relaying plans to stage an open house.
Tenerowicz’s landlord, who had originally rented out the house decades earlier, recently died, leaving a family member in charge of his estate. With no established rapport with the new owner, Tenerowicz — and her neighbor, who has lived in a small house in the back of the property for 30 years — was recently served a notice of eviction.
Having raised her now adult daughter as a single parent, Tenerowicz has worked numerous jobs at once, including her current second job, serving tables at Little House Cafe. “There’s always been a second job,” she said. “No matter what.”
When it comes to affordable housing opportunities, Tenerowicz did what she could; gathering the right paperwork, submitting it on time, following the proper course of action. However, being a single person searching for a home in the midst of a housing market spike, according to a Housing Authority representative whom Tenerowicz did not name, doesn’t exactly make her a high priority when pitted against large families with double incomes.
Tenerowicz has two dogs — Frankie and Albert — and four cats, whom Tenerowicz refers to as her family, further limiting rental options, since many leases don’t allow pets.
“There’s some good teachers we’re losing because they’re moving off the Island — they just can’t afford it …These are teachers with decent salaries, with spouses that are [also bringing in income]. They still can’t afford to stay. It’s heartbreaking.”
–Susan Tenerowicz, a special needs teacher at the Edgartown School
Tenerowicz said the few available housing options she’s been privy to requires a financial stretch that is just not feasible. Many property owners are looking for tenants to “pay the mortgage,” she said, and with real estate rates having skyrocketed, “that’s something I can’t do … I can’t afford that. I’d be working my two jobs just to pay the rent,” let alone utilities and other basic expenses.
Tenerowicz said she’s been slowly watching coworkers and other Island school employees making the move, either to Falmouth — from whence they commute daily — or choosing to cut ties with the Island altogether.
To Tenerowicz, starting over is a concerning possibility. Coming up on eligibility for retirement, she said that moving at this stage, and packing up 26 years’ worth of belongings, is hard to imagine. “I don’t know what to do,” she said, “I don’t want to leave the kids.”
On the optics of what looks like the beginning of an Island mass exodus to the mainland, Tenerowicz said, “There’s some good teachers we’re losing because they’re moving off the Island — they just can’t afford it …These are teachers with decent salaries, with spouses that are [also bringing in income]. They still can’t afford to stay. It’s heartbreaking.”
Two jobs, no housing prospects
Charter School kindergarten teacher Lori DiGiacomo has lived on the Vineyard for 30 years. Before her 19 years at the Charter School, DiGiacomo was employed at the Montessori School and the Chilmark School.
As a single parent, DiGiacomo has worked hard and spread herself thin over the years. In addition to teaching, she has waited tables, worked in catering, and cleaned houses. A perpetual renter, like many of her colleagues, DiGiacomo is at the whim of a landlord’s decision. The unfortunate recent death of the property owner’s wife prompted him to put the house — and its adjacent guest house, in which she resides — on the market, leaving DiGiacomo without a safety net.
Having taken preparatory measures in the event of having to move due to lack of housing, DiGiacomo secured teaching licenses in multiple states.
However, making the move off-Island isn’t cut and dry; not only would DiGiacomo be leaving her community, but she faces being shortchanged with her much-relied-on pension. Having previously worked at a private school, and taking some time off — until her daughter entered first grade — DiGiacomo said she would receive 39 percent of her pension if she were to walk away now. “If I stay five more years, I can get 57 percent,” she said, adding that leaving now would be forsaking her health insurance, which is vital, considering she does not yet meet the age requirements for Medicare.
Like other Island teachers, DiGiacomo’s salary makes her ineligible for the Vineyard’s affordable housing programs; however, even if buying a house were an option, the realities of taking on a mortgage at this stage in her life, she said, are not ideal. With a personal preference to rent, DiGiacomo finds herself without options due to the overwhelmingly high cost of rentals. “I’m pretty screwed,” she said.
“Veteran teachers, which are the backbone of schools, are going to start to leave,” she said. “I just don’t know how they are going to recruit qualified teachers, qualified physicians, or qualified EMTs, because there’s nowhere for anyone to live.”
DiGiacomo said sometimes she goes on Airbnb to wade through availability, and sees small cottages and guest houses that are completely beyond reasonable price ranges. “That’s problematic to me,” she said. Of how she can make living on the Island work, she has had to consider all possibilities, noting “[At my age], do I want to houseshare?”
In weighing the options, and whether to leave the Island, DiGiacomo said she wouldn’t even know where to move. “I’ve been here for over 30 years, my people are here. My tribe is here,” she said. Having raised her daughter on the Vineyard, DiGiacomo said, “we’ve given up the illusion of her ever coming back to be part of the community. It’s unattainable now.”
Her daughter, who is also a teacher, is “happy and settled” in Vermont with her partner, said DiGiacomo, adding that she wouldn’t want to burden her adult daughter — who has her entire life ahead of her — with helping with housing; a common refrain from teachers — not wanting to burden family members.
“I don’t want to go,” said DiGiacomo, “I love this place, and I want to continue to serve the children of the community.”
Hasad Shahid, Ph.D., moved to the Island in 2020 after being offered a position at MVRHS teaching Heritage Portuguese, a subject specifically catered to students with Portuguese-speaking families, in addition to teaching Spanish. Shahid and his wife Narmin, who worked as a math teaching assistant at the Oak Bluffs School, had to make the decision to leave Martha’s Vineyard after just a few years. On his resignation from the school, Shahid said, it might have been different if he could secure reasonable-priced housing.
With an influx of Portuguese speakers to the Island, the demand for language teachers increased, giving way to a broader and more inclusive curriculum, both for heritage speakers and second language learners.
“Early 2021, we started looking at houses,” said Shahid. “Then we realized what everyone else realizes — that housing, first of all, is very scarce; and that if it exists, it’s very, very unaffordable.“
“Early 2021, we started looking at houses. Then we realized what everyone else realizes — that housing, first of all, is very scarce; and that if it exists, it’s very, very unaffordable.“
–Hasad Shahid, a foreign language teacher who has left the Island because of the housing situation
Shahid expressed that he enjoyed working at the high school, specifically working with the students. As far as “long-term prospects, staying here and buying a place didn’t seem very realistic,” he said.
Shahid earned his doctorate in Portuguese and Brazilian studies from Brown University, and along with his wife and two children, is multilingual.
During his time at the high school, Shahid said he enjoyed working with the kids; particularly by encouraging kids to embrace their culture in addition to learning more about a different one.
Originally hailing from Illinois, Shahid has lived all over the world, and has a plethora of experiences that any high school student would benefit from learning about. With MVRHS’s loss becoming West Point U.S. Military Academy’s gain, Shahid and his family are making the move to New York after accepting the offer of a teaching position at the prestigious school — where reasonably priced housing is, surprisingly, readily available.