Housing Opens New Life for Two Families

By MANDY LOCKE

The phone call came at just the right moment for one Island family.

The couple - we'll call them Joe and Sarah - was being driven out of yet another rental, this time because of the owner's decision to put the house on the market. They know the routine all too well, having moved more than a dozen times in their eight years of living on the Island.

Then Joe and Sarah learned that their family was one of two selected to live in a duplex on Halcyon Way in West Tisbury, a collaborative affordable housing project completed earlier this month. They had finally climbed to the top of the regional housing authority's list - nearly 200 names long - of families in search of affordable housing.

"The news came not a moment too soon. We'd been on that list for two years," Joe said this week. "Before this, we had resigned ourselves to being the generation of downward mobility."

Just days before the call from the authority, Joe and Sarah had scrounged together $3,000 to put toward a 500-square-foot rental cottage in Tisbury for the remainder of the winter.

But it was their five-month-old baby girl who made that latest rental option harder to stomach. Because the old cottage contained lead-based paint, Joe had invested $400 in supplies to strip and repaint the cottage's walls before they set up yet another temporary home.

"We'd already decided that if something didn't happen in the next year, we were going to have to pack up and go," Joe said, obviously relieved that they'll be able to enjoy Island life a while longer.

With jobs in the restaurant, construction and auto repair businesses, they'll earn enough to pay monthly rent of $885. And now that they no longer have to shoulder rents as high as $1,400 a month for a single room in the summer, they will for the first time be able to start saving for a down payment on a house of their own.

"No matter where you live, there is always this underlying feeling of it not being your home," Joe said. "It certainly added stress to our lives. At any point in time, you don't know where you'll go next season."

Joe and Sarah are two of the 2,000 or so Islanders who struggle to secure an affordable place to live in a community where median home prices soar 85 percent above the state average, even as the average wage is 27 per cent below average.

Their opportunity comes thanks to a gift of sweat and time from an Island builder and fellow tradesmen invested in the affordable housing problem.

Standing on a newly finished terra cotta kitchen floor at lunchtime Monday, veteran builder Tucker Hubbell deflected praise, rattling through a list of businesses and individuals who donated goods and services at cost to bring the bottom line for the two new apartments down to $213,000.

But other affordable housing advocates were quick to praise Mr. Hubbell's willingness to step up and address the affordable housing problem.

"I have a new kind of faith today," said Island Affordable Housing chairman John Abrams. "It's a faith that comes from the way that Tucker Hubbell took on this project."

Using land donated to the regional housing authority in conjunction with approval of a subdivision in 1990, the Island Affordable Housing Development Corporation hired Mr. Hubbell to build two 950-square-foot two-bedroom apartments. He and fellow carpenter Ben Clark took on the year-long project, laboring for only an hourly wage.

After obtaining many materials at cost and holding a volunteer shingling party earlier this fall, the duplex was ultimately built at an expense of around $112 per square foot - about $70 less than the average new home built on the Island.

The regional housing authority has secured a $100,000 state grant, which will pay nearly half of the already modest project cost. The $1,770 in combined rent payments from the two resident families will go to pay the remaining $113,000 mortgage.

"I think it's wonderful people were willing to do this," Joe said. "Knowing this, I will do anything I can to help in the future. My hats are off to them. Had I known, I would have been out there helping."

Both Joe and Sarah and the other family selected to live in the Halcyon Way duplex earn less than 80 per cent of the county's median income - $42,000 for a family of three. The rent and utilities will not exceed 35 per cent of their income.

Now Joe and Sarah are counting their blessings that the gamble of life on the Vineyard dealt them a full house just in time for the holidays.

"We didn't want to leave the Island," Joe said. "We really appreciate the beauty of this place. Our daughter's an Islander, and we'd like to keep her here as long as we can."