Only carry from place to place what can fit in your car, or if you’re lucky, a friend’s pickup truck. Pack your clothes in garbage bags and carefully stack them so they don’t tumble over on the drive. Leave the cabinets completely empty, tuck the plates and dishes in between your clothes, and lock the door behind you as though you were never there.
It’s a rhythm familiar to many Vineyarders who have committed themselves to making the Island their home, but who cannot afford to own a home of their own. As summer visitors return to their houses for the first big weekend of the season, many of the year-round community has just finished another round of the seasonal housing phenomenon known to Islanders as the Vineyard Shuffle.
Housing on the Vineyard is divided into two seasons, much like the ebb and flow of the Island’s pace— summer housing, typically lasting between four and five months, and winter housing for the remainder of the year. Shuffle anxiety begins to set in around March. This phenomenon is not limited to one pocket of the community, either, affecting everyone from gas station attendants to teachers to seniors.
The affordability gap between winter and summer rentals can be staggering. A three bedroom house in Katama renting for $1,500 a month in the off-season begins at $3,150 a week during the summer months.
According to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s comprehensive Island Plan published in 2009, 29 per cent of renters participate in the shuffle. The MVC will begin an Islandwide housing needs assessment survey this fall, part of which may include counting shufflers, executive director Mark London said this week. Dukes County Regional Housing Authority executive director David Vigneault added that anecdotal evidence points to a dramatic increase in Islanders participating in the summer shuffle.
“Right now there’s been a really significant early and ongoing need for housing as of May 31, it’s like we haven’t seen it in a few years,” Mr. Vigneault said. “I think the summer shuffle has a little harder edge to it now. It used to have a sense of resignation. Now it’s a wide-eyed panic. Now people are coming through and they are more likely to say I am homeless on May 31 than they used to be.”
Mr. Vigneault has 204 households on the rental assistance waiting list, down from 300 a few years ago. The drop in those numbers could be attributed to a few factors, Mr. Vigneault said— people do not make enough money to qualify for rental assistance, they’ve moved in to housing authority rental properties, or people have left and given up.
But giving up is not considered an option for many shufflers. For Allie Horowitz and Noah Maxner, the charm of living next to a wide-open field each summer with baby bunnies nesting outside their front door greatly outweighs the stress of quitting the Vineyard Shuffle. Together, with their two-year old daughter River, Ms. Horowitz and Mr. Maxner have shuffled at least twice a year for the past four years. It’s stressful and exhausting, they admit, but there’s something about the converted barn they live in that encourages them to keep coming back.
“If you love a place and you feel committed to it and really appreciate the beauty it has and the energy it feeds into your life you compromise, you do what you need to do to make it work,” Ms. Horowitz, 26, said at their summer rental this week. Mr. Maxner, 34, joined the conversation after putting River down for a nap. “The key to getting through the difficult parts is remembering the bigger picture,” he said.
After every shuffle, the couple evaluates the move. It’s a delicate balancing act between working full time— Mr. Maxner manages Mocha Mott’s and Ms. Horowitz works several part-time jobs— keeping their sanity and balancing the checkbook.
They have moving down to a science, stacking their small convertible like something out of a Dr. Seuss book and no longer needing to ask friends to pitch in.
“River is never upset because she’s away from home,” added Ms. Horowitz. “She’s always at home wherever she goes. We’ve built a sense of home around us and people and not really a place. As long as we’re there and people who love her are around, she’s great.”
Mr. Maxner did concede, though, that after every move they flirt with the idea of moving off-Island. They hope to have a plot of land some day and work their own fields. But for now they’re staying put.
“I feel grounded on this Island,” said Mr. Maxner, who has lived on the Vineyard since he was 13. “That’s the beauty of this place, people connect with it in a multifaceted way. People feel at home quickly...those who come and visit for a summer or a week, spend the next three years figuring out how to live here.”
Susanne Faraca of Kelleher Real Estate echoed Mr. Maxner’s sentiments, describing shufflers as resilient.
“People find it’s worth it and it is,” she said. “There is so much to say about Martha’s Vineyard that’s wonderful and if these people could solve this ongoing problem it would be an idyllic place to live. But for many people in this rental situation, it’s not.”
Ms. Faraca’s vantage point includes the entire scope of the rental market from weekly rentals to home sales, and she also specializes in finding seasonal homes for shufflers. Ms. Faraca said demand has increased for seasonal housing.
“With the amount of foreclosures you have more people looking to rent,” she said. “You have the same number of rentals but more people that need them in a tighter market.”
Ms. Faraca said the rental market has competing interests— homeowners looking to make money and renters trying to get by.
“People who can’t afford to own anymore still want to stay here because they make fair salaries here, but the cost of living is almost enough to eclipse it, particularly if you have to do this shuffle,” she said. “It’s a shame these people who really, truly want to be here just don’t have the ability to have the money to make a permanent decision to buy something. That’s the sad part to me.”
Year-round rentals are few and far between and tend to be one-year only stints because homeowners like the option of selling the house, Ms. Faraca added.
“A house always sells better and shows better if it’s empty or the owner is in it,” she said. “It’s almost like a perfect storm with the second home market here — most people want to get the best money they can get and that’s in weekly summer rentals. They’d rather not commit to a year-round rental unless they know the person or for some other reason they don’t want to deal with summer rentals.”
Jim Feiner, a real estate agent and chairman of the Chilmark housing committee, said one way to close the housing gap is through rental subsidies, but in order to close the gap further, more affordable rental units or homesites need to be designated. Mr. Feiner said when the real estate market began to tank a few years ago, the low-end rental houses were at a premium for investors, summer renters and speculators.
“That was our housing stock,” he said. “Some of those houses became available again but most did not.”
“I would like to see the agencies we have on the Island buying more affordable rental units as well as creating perpetual homesites,” he continued. “We need to be addressing the section of the population most hurting, the people who are in the 60 to 100 per cent of the median income who cannot afford to buy and as a result end up in subpar conditions.”
Not every shuffler does so out of necessity, though. Many on the Vineyard choose to move out of their winter homes, which they own, in order to take advantage of the potential summer rental income.
Brad Abbott, a partner at Gannon and Benjamin, his wife Alice Kyburg and nine-year-old twins Amelia and Henry take to the sea, literally, by moving to their 48-foot sailboat in Vineyard Haven harbor for the summer. They left their West Tisbury home in early May.
“Everything slows down when you live on a boat,” Mr. Abbott said one evening this week. The family’s belongings were still a little scattered from the move, but Amelia and Henry each have their own bunk, outfitted with their favorite pillows and stuffed animals. “At the end of the day you’re here,” he continued. “It’s an intimate thing for our family. We all enjoy it very much.”
The quest for summer income is not always so idyllic, though. Harriet Bernstein has operated her home as a bed and breakfast for 12 years, but last summer chose to move out of her home for the first time, hoping to to make a profit on a summer rental. She left the Island for the summer and headed to Woodstock, N.Y.
But the revenue between the bed and breakfast and summer rentals didn’t quite even out. While Ms. Bernstein made the same amount of money in two months as she would have made from her bed and breakfast visitors in four months, she still had to pay to live somewhere else.
This summer she’ll rent out her house again but it will be the final test to see if she can handle the shuffle or move off-Island for more affordable options.
Shuffling by necessity is not universally derided, though, either. Sakiko Isomichi has moved at least twice a year for the past five years and said she’s enjoyed every move.
“It’s always something exciting. It’s like traveling but you don’t have to go too far, you get to stay on one Island and experience something different,” Ms. Isomichi said earlier this week as her four-year-old son Cassidy slept in his bike buggy. Ms. Isomichi does not own a car and travels around the Island with her son via bicycle.
“This time Cassidy was a little anxious about moving because he didn’t know this place. I kept talking to him about it but he hadn’t seen it before. As soon as I brought him here and talked about what we’re going to do here in the new place he was fine about moving.”
Ms. Isomichi works at the Scottish Bakehouse, farms and tunes pianos for a living. She tends to find her living situations by word of mouth, and while others go into panic mode, Ms. Isomichi stays calm and confident that something will work out every time a move approaches.
Growing up in Japan, Ms. Isomichi absorbed valuable lessons in simplicity. Her family moved frequently and she learned to travel light, and wear layers.
“I like smaller places,” she said. “We lived in a big winter house but I didn’t like it, especially with heat costs. I’d rather be cold. That’s just how I grew up, too. I lived in a cold house, put on layers and kept myself warm.”
Embracing the shuffle may not be an outlook many others share, but Jefferson Munroe tries to view the situation with a sense of humor.
“There are generally weeks of prep as you slowly slough off the things you don’t think you need,” he said, taking a break from working on his farm. “It usually entails some sort of gathering with your friends to view all the things they can own soon— condiments and bits of clothing, things like that. And then there’s trying to move everything in a short period of time.”
Shuffle season coincides with the beginning of the farming season, when attention to startup ventures are most critical and time is short.
“Oh, it’s horrible. Unless you know exactly where you’re going to be shuffling back and forth to, there’s such anxiety in the spring,” Mr. Munroe said. “There’s that window in February and March when things begin to open up and when you don’t have something by the middle of March you get stuck in the summer rental market. [Landlords] are trying to pay their bills but the amount of money they’re asking for rent is terrible. I feel like for many of those people they don’t realize that if they were to charge less they would have longer-term tenants or happier tenants.”
One summer Mr. Munroe and his girlfriend lived in an illegal basement apartment with one entrance, no windows or ventilation, and an outdoor cooking area. Plumbing was considered an amenity.
“We just ate out a lot that summer, there was plenty of hummus and chips,” he said.
Last year they lived in a “quasi legal” location, although it, too, had no real plumbing facilities. Mr. Munroe recently found a year-round rental in West Tisbury for $950 a month, ending, at least for now, his shuffling days.
Chrissy Kinsman has also said goodbye to her shuffling ways but she can still remember the first day she moved to the Island 12 years ago. She was living with her boss who was house-sitting for the summer for an elderly couple. The house was packed with knickknacks and treasures and the cupboards filled with packaged goods.
“They had a jar of ticks in alcohol on the table in the living room,” Mrs. Kinsman added, bursting into laughter. “I remember thinking, oh my gosh, where am I. This is too weird.”
Mrs. Kinsman moved 12 times in three years alone; her husband, Drew, couldn’t recall the number of places he had shuffled to and from since 1983. But after years of moving, the Kinsmans caught a break. In May 2010 they were awarded a home in West Tisbury on Eliakim’s Way through an affordable housing lottery.
Two years after moving into their home, the couple still feel a sense of relief and awe each spring. Mrs. Kinsman is the development director for the Farm Institute and Mr. Kinsman is a carpenter.
“I have so many weird stories,” Mr. Kinsman said thinking back on his shuffling days. At one point he opted for “luxury tents,” buying the largest tent L.L. Bean sold and setting up camp in a “tent city” in Vineyard Haven. Mrs. Kinsman recalled living in a basement one summer which was filled with the landlord’s belongings and needing to build a bookshelf because the landlord had rented out the other side of the room to a friend.
“I can remember that anxiety in March of where are you going to go,” she said. “It’s a primary need, it’s like worrying about what you’re going to eat. It’s upsetting on such a deep level to have to constantly leave...it’s where you live but it’s not your home and you end up getting resentful of the people you’re paying money to.”
“You are living in someone else’s house and it’s apparent— it’s their literature on the shelves, their art on the walls— and they’re coming back,” Mr. Kinsman added. “You’re really only staying there. It can be disturbing.”
The couple is happy to have a place to call home, forever.
“By the time I hit 30 I thought, okay, I’m really over living with a strange man on the other side of the bookshelves, without a kitchen,” Mrs. Kinsman said. Winning the housing lottery “totally changed my life.”
Reflecting on their years in constant transit, Mr. and Mrs. Kinsman said it seems the culture of the Vineyard Shuffle has drastically changed over the years.
“I think it’s a lot worse than it’s ever been,” Mr. Kinsman said.
Mrs. Kinsman agreed.
“When I first got here there seemed to be a lot of old school Vineyarders interested in keeping people around, I think there’s a lot less of that,” she said. “We should expect prices to go up but it doesn’t seem like there are as many good-hearted people.”
“It’s a shift, a changing of the guard,” added Mr. Kinsman.