In Annual Rental Shuffle, Some Exit

By MANDY LOCKE

The Island's great annual migration is underway as Vineyarders hit the road in trucks loaded with all they own - moving out of winter rentals into new spots for the summer season.

The summer shuffle - an infamous Vineyard tradition driven by landlords hoping to cash in on the lucrative business of seasonal rentals - displaces hundreds of Islanders during the bloated tourist season. And much of the movement this year, some say, is families giving up for good - joining the waves of others who have already left.

"It's a scramble - an incredible time of angst and panic for our families. And it happens every year," said Reverend Robert Edmunds, minister of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, who has become active in affordable housing work.

Veteran shufflers know the drill well. The search for summer housing depends on pure luck. Packing is an art form. May is the dreaded month.

"I scoured the paper, scoured the bulletin boards and found nothing. It got to the point in which I had no shame and asked anyone I saw. I'm eight months pregnant and need to be in a place before the baby comes in June," said J.J. Gonson, a freelance writer who's moving again this summer with her toddler, husband and the baby on the way.

"This is an absolutely horrendous month. It's the busiest time for my business. My daughter is graduating from high school, and I've got to start packing again. We're down to mostly clothes and a few family items that are too precious to get rid of. It's all we have the energy to carry," said Liz Toomey, who's been doing the shuffle with her teenage daughters since they were displaced from a year-round rental four years ago.

"I'm 48 years old, and I have my entire life in 16 boxes," said Kathleen Byrnes, a 14-year resident of the Island who will seal her boxes for the last time this month. After a decade of shuffling, Ms. Byrnes has given up and will head to Salt Lake City, joining several other ex-Vineyarders who made the move years before.

"I've made well over 100 phone calls. This year seems harder than the rest," said Dan Dunlop, who, like many divorced parents, is doing the shuffle so that children can remain in their family home with the other parent. Mr. Dunlop has a 10-year-old son. "It gets depressing. I've had to take time off from work to check places out. It's competitive - the good places are gone in no time. What's left is really expensive - over $2,500 a month for a room." Mr. Dunlop noted that well over half of his income as a carpenter covers his winter rental costs and that he can hardly swallow these summer rates.

Terri Keech, an administrative assistant at the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority, has fielded at least a dozen desperate calls a week over the past month - residents whose winter leases lapse by late May. And Ms. Keech must simply put them on a list with 168 other Islanders waiting for affordable year-round rentals.

"We've got a lot of work to do before people aren't feeling panicked about where they will lay their heads at night," Ms. Keech said.

The housing authority appealed to the Island Affordable Housing Fund - a non-profit housing group that already funnels nearly $200,000 into rental subsidies for 33 families - to commit more money to the program.

"We've got a half dozen emergency situations - people on the brink of homelessness. We already dried up our rental conversion money this fiscal year, but IAHF agreed to help with six more before June 30," said Philippe Jordi, executive director of the housing authority.

But the help will not come soon enough for people like Linda Goodmote - who already put money down on a porta-pottie and a piece of yard for her tent.

"Within 10 days, I'll be living in a tent again," Ms. Goodmote said as she packed up her teenagers' clothes. "Taking a shower with a hose in October can be a bit tricky, but my daughters and I already have a support system in place here and we don't want to start over."

Ms. Goodmote said that she's unable to meet many of the first-month and deposit down requirements on some of the summer rentals she's seen. She barely swings her winter rental rate of $500 a month - an amount on which she fell behind when forced to miss housecleaning work over the winter because of an illness.

Summer camping is a life Gina James knows all too well. For five years, she and two children moved into a tent each summer on a friend's property.

"That last year, we had no electricity, and my young teens would have to go to bed when the sun went down. They decided we couldn't do it anymore," Ms. James remembers. She now sinks half of her income from waitressing into a year-round rental, and her brother picks up the other half of the monthly rate so that she doesn't have to relocate twice a year.

"The kids are still embarrassed about it. A tent is kind of a cool place to live, but they got so embarrassed about not being able to keep up with the Joneses," she said, noting that she will leave her Island home once her youngest child finishes high school.

The hardships of the summer housing shift ripple well beyond the physical act of moving. Rising winter rental costs are leaving Island families wholly unprepared to swallow steep summer prices. Winter rentals are known to climb well beyond $1,000 a month now. And year-round rentals, Mr. Jordi notes, are creeping closer to $2,000 a month.

Summer rental rates are topping $1,500 a month for a room with shared privileges and $11,000 for the season for a small cottage, and seasonal rentals are low in supply. For the last five years, less than a dozen rooms or apartments make it into the season-long section of the Gazette's classified section each week in the month of May. Many times that number appear in the week-to-week or month-only vacation rental sections.

Season-long rentals that year-round Islanders can afford "never come to us. It's an underground system. They're snatched up before they go public," said Sharon Purdy, principal of Sandpiper Rentals and a member of the Edgartown resident homesite committee.

Even the Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce's summer housing list - primarily geared toward the summer work force but often tapped by displaced year-round residents - is faltering this year. The sheer number of rental listings is down about 40 per cent from last year, information specialist Linda Dellatorre said. Prices for room rentals, however, are about the same - ranging from $150 to $175 a week.

While suffering through the seasonal migration, many resolve to give up this lifestyle within a few years - refusing to drag their families through the instability any longer.

"We're one of the fortunate few for now," Ms. Gonson said, explaining their ability to find and afford a summer rental. "Will we be able to sustain it for long? That's the question. I'd really like for my children to be here, but we're not sure we want to put down roots in a place we can't stay."

The mass exodus has pulled waves of Islanders off in the last several years, said Carl van Rooyen, who's been the Island's UHaul dealer for two decades.

"The exodus continues. In the past few years, May is unbelievable busy for me," Mr. VanRooyen said, noting that his waiting list for one-way rentals off-Island already extends beyond the end of May.

For the last two years, the months of April, May and again in September and October, Mr. van Rooyen watched between three and five households a week leave the Vineyard in his trucks - nearly all of whom say they won't return.

"No one's immune. I'm sending a lot of folks off who have been here for a very long time. It makes me wonder when I'll be on the other side of the counter. People used to say, ‘I'm never leaving.' Now, never's been taken out of the equation," Mr. van Rooyen said.

Every day, his phone rings with more inquiries from folks contemplating moves to Florida and Arizona.

"It's people you'd never guess would leave. They're lifers and prominent Islanders. They said they just want to know what kind of bill they'll be faced with when it's time to move," Mr. van Rooyen added.

If affordable year-round rentals seem out of reach, home ownership is a dream most of these shufflers dare not encourage. Instead, some brace themselves for a life elsewhere - where they will try and build another community.

"I grew me here. I leave with a heavy heart. I'm one of the last of my friends to go. But it's over; we've sold Martha's soul," said Ms. Byrnes.