One Family's Vision Makes Dream of Affordable House Come True

By MANDY LOCKE

It's the story of one Island family's refusal to gouge another year-round family struggling to find a home in an expensive real estate market. It's the story of a real estate broker determined to find the perfect buyer - a moderate-income Island family desperate to buy their own home after a decade of shuffling from one inadequate rental to another.

For once, it's an affordable housing story with a happy ending.

"The stars lined up beautifully. What are the odds of something like this happening on the Vineyard?" said the lucky buyer just days after moving into her new home on Alpine Drive in Oak Bluffs.

Michael and Michelle Magee decided to take advantage of a job opportunity in New Hampshire after 18 years on the Island. But instead of cashing in on their four-bedroom Cape's market value of $365,000 - inflated by a decade of rising real estate prices - the family wanted to preserve an opportunity for another year-round family seeking a place in the housing market.

"We were tired of all the greed on the Island. Everything out here seems to be so money motivated. We really wanted this to go to an Island family that could use it," Mrs. Magee said shortly before the family walked away from their life on the Vineyard.

Eight years ago, the Magees found themselves in the role of prospective buyers anxious to find a home that, even in the early 1990s, was priced low enough to fit their modest incomes.

"We realized we were running out of places to shuffle to," Mr. Magee said of their decision to jump into the purchase.

Only a contractor's willingness to hold the mortgage for two years and allow the family to trade sweat equity for a down payment opened the way for them to enter the housing market in 1994.

"We got to drive a backhoe and we had to pick up after the construction crew," said Mr. Magee.

When the Magees announced their intentions to prospective real estate broker Jean Kelleher, the veteran agent could not have been more shocked.

"We never get someone who doesn't want to take advantage of a profit. In fact, sellers will often increase the price beyond what we recommend," Mrs. Kelleher said.

The West Tisbury broker, moved by the Magees' gesture, met their generosity with a gift of her own - an offer to cut her commission and find the perfect Island buyer.

"All of the brokers have seen the effects of high prices. We've moved friends and neighbors off the Island. We don't really see year-round people looking for houses anymore," she said.

The Magees' conviction to sell the home for at least 10 per cent less than the $365,000 market value was so unprecedented, Mrs. Kelleher at first did not know how she could demand a preference for a local family on the open market.

Mrs. Kelleher put the question to Dukes County Regional Housing Authority executive director Philippe Jordi the day after the Magees hired her real estate company.

All the parties agree the timing could not have been better.

Just days before, the housing authority had launched an affordable home buyer clearing house, a mailing list designed to inform Island families of housing opportunities as they came available. Only one name appeared on the housing authority's list when Mrs. Kelleher walked into the office - the name of the family who would eventually purchase the Alpine Drive home.

"There's no way to explain how one minute I walked into the housing office and the next minute [Mrs. Kelleher] walks in," the buyer said.

"I never thought I'd own my own home," she added.

After 12 years of moving her two children every nine months into whatever rental she could secure on a modest income from landscaping and house cleaning jobs, this Vineyard mother unpacked the moving truck this week for what she hopes is the last time.

The buyer's two teenage children - keenly sensitive to lines drawn between families that "have" and those that do not - asked that the family's names not be used in this article. While their gratitude is immense, they prefer to stay out of the public limelight.

"This is the first time that I, as a mother, have been able to give them personal space," she said. "My eldest daughter closed the door to her room last night - the first time she's been able to do this. My youngest still walks around saying ‘Is this really ours?' "

The Cape on Alpine Drive comes as a dream for the two children who, when living with their mother, spent their Vineyard lives in less than desirable conditions. The memories of past rentals are still vivid for the mother and her two daughters, from the shack in which electricity was supplied by an extension cord running from the main house to the home they shared with a couple of other families.

"You do what you have to do to stay here," the mother said.

After rent rose beyond her reach for the family's West Chop cottage one year, she realized she could never afford to keep her children on the Island on landscaping and house cleaning wages.

"When it became obvious that I could never afford to keep my children here, I went back to school," said the mother, who just received a degree to become a physician's assistant.

Her new income, combined with that of her partner, will allow the family of four to swallow the monthly mortgage.

"My children have grown up here, and it's a nice punctuation to their lives to spend their last few years before college in a home of their own," she said.

The mother and two children are but one family of the estimated 2,000 Island households desperate to enter a housing market in which median home prices soar 87 per cent above state averages. Forty per cent of those Island renters lack a year-round lease, and a third pay more than 35 per cent of their income in rent.

The affordability gap widened so much in the last decade that only one in 10 year-round homeowners could mortgage 80 per cent of their current home cost at their present incomes.

And homes that this Island family, which earns well beyond the county median income of $53,000 for a family of three, could afford on the open market needed years of maintenance work before the family could move.

"So many needed lots of tender loving care before you could move in. Sure, you get a structure, but you pay a high cost for little," the new homeowner said.

This single transaction pulled many different Island parties together for the sake of securing a home for a moderate-income family. The mortgage company rushed a credit check. The Oak Bluffs wastewater treatment facility and Anthony's Excavation pushed ahead a septic system pump, the last detail needed for the closing. Fellow real estate agent Debbie Hancock offered the family furniture not needed by one of her clients.

"Everyone has stepped up to the plate to do as much as they could and keep their eyes on the final product," Mrs. Kelleher said.

The Magees' willingness to take less of their house sale profit also reminded the real estate agent of her colleagues' responsibility to help provide affordable housing for year-round families.

"We're not isolated. We're the first line of defense in seeing what's coming on," Mrs. Kelleher said. "The community will be decimated if we don't ensure a place for the Island's children."