An Island Couple with a Simple Wish: They'd Like a House to Call a Home

By MANDY LOCKE

Erin and Gary Simmons Jr. are nearly there.

A healthy baby girl Avery - a mirror-image of her father - made their family three at the end of November. Erin and Gary, both public school teachers, have masters degrees under their belts and are well on their way to earning tenure status. Gary, a physical education teacher, helps coach the high school baseball team on which he starred almost two decades ago. When Erin stepped back into her Tisbury school fourth-grade class this spring after five months of maternity leave, Avery started spending the day with her grandmother Linda Dellatorre - one of four grandparents the seven-month old has on the Island.

From the Simmons' kitchen window, there's not a house in sight - the three-bedroom Cape is buried deep in a thicket of scrub oak. A few hundred feet off Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road, the Oak Bluffs rental is less than a five-minute drive to either of their workplaces. And they've been able to call this place home spring, summer, fall and winter for nearly three years.

Theirs is an enviable existence, one against which the couple hesitates to register any complaints.

"We're really living our dreams . . ." says Erin, as she spoons baby food into a wiggling Avery's mouth.

"Three-quarters of the way," Gary completes her sentence.

Erin and Gary Simmons are caught in the middle. The couple, with a combined income of about $90,000 a year, earn too much to be eligible for any of the Island's affordable housing programs. Yet Erin and Gary earn too little to actually buy a house on the Vineyard's open real estate market. It's a limbo that blocks these two from the American dream of home ownership.

The Simmons family is one of an unknown number of Vineyard households that have fallen through the cracks. Over the past two months, Gary and Erin told their story, shared private financial matters and walked a Gazette reporter through their fruitless attempts to find a home so that readers might understand the Island's newest endangered species: the young professional family.

Dead Ends

Gary's been collecting cardboard boxes for a year. He brings them home and stuffs them in the basement. There must be 40 by now.

"That's my reminder that we're moving out of here one day," Gary says, clearing plates from the dinner table.

Erin's reminder is a three-ring binder, filled with hundreds of pages torn from home decorating magazines. By now, she's gathered ideas for every shape, shade and size bedroom.

Finding a house has become the quest - they'd admit the obsession - of their lives. Every morning over coffee, Erin and Gary divide tasks. She may go to the registry of the deeds to research titles of properties bound for auction; he may visit a house slated for demolition and investigate whether it could be moved, or go to the board of health to check septic capacity for a reasonably-priced one-bedroom home that might be expanded.

"It's an undefined borders sort of project. We constantly feel like we're on a treadmill. But we've just got to keep checking things off the list. If we leave one rock unturned, shame on us," says Gary. He's the systematic one; while Erin gets more emotional when leads don't pan out.

"It's like having a part-time job. An intense one. We talk about it so much. Not a day goes by that we're not researching something, talking to the housing authority, looking at a house. It's draining, but we keep thinking it's bound to happen," Erin says.

It's what they thought about each of the dozens of avenues they've explored since fall. There was the rat-infested house in Edgartown for $279,000 and the 600-square-foot ranch just a few blocks from the Tisbury school for $310,000 - so small they doubted Avery's crib could fit in the second bedroom. Even options as undesirable as these are scarce. A recent edition of the Martha's Vineyard Real Estate Guide lists only one home for less than $300,000.

Over the last ten months, only one house fit their growing family, didn't demand substantial gutting and fell within their $320,000 limit. But Gary and Erin didn't move fast enough. It disappeared from the market in two hours.

"This is a huge deal for us. We need a home inspector to go through. I'd like my dad to take a look. We're not buying a used car here," Gary says, shaking his head.

Along with scanning the open market, Erin and Gary pursued a number of grassroots housing initiatives - town-sponsored projects that inevitably delivered just as many dead ends.

Recognizing that even middle-income families couldn't establish footholds in the Island's skyrocketing housing market as early as the mid-1990s, many town and housing officials stretched income eligibility standards for affordable housing programs from 80 per cent to 140 per cent of median income.

But with a combined income of just over $90,000, the Simmons family earns more than 150 per cent of the county's median income for a household of three - a figure that puts them more than $12,000 beyond the income eligibility threshold. Only those earning less than 140 per cent of the median income - $77,000 for a family of three - can apply for town programs or join the regional housing authority's list of low- and moderate-income families awaiting opportunities.

Even if Gary dropped his summer and weekend work as a personal trainer - a part-time venture which brings in about $4,500 a year - the Simmons family still couldn't qualify for help.

"It's a Catch-22. If I quit working, we'd qualify. No problem. But then we couldn't get the mortgage. How are we slipping through the cracks?" Erin asks.

"I feel that we make really good money for what we do. And we love what we do. We've just got to fight the housing challenge," says Gary.

Erin and Gary applied for Chilmark's resident homesite program - a new effort which allows landowners to chisel off an acre of their property for buyers of modest income. At the town assessors office, Gary and Erin researched a list of land owners. Over a weekend this spring, they sent 100 letters to likely sellers, pleading their case. Only six people wrote back - each saying they had other plans for the property and wishing the family well. Then, just last month, the resident homesite committee officially notified the Simmons family they weren't eligible, anyway. Teaching for the regional high school isn't enough to qualify Gary for a program designed for Chilmark residents and workers.

At the Tisbury school, Erin watched plans evolve for several acres of land gifted to the school from the George Manter family. But the school committee envisions affordable housing for renters, not buyers. Erin and Gary recognize that's important, but they feel ready to step into ownership.

"I'm 34. My parents had a house when they were in their twenties. You get to a point when you want to stop paying rent and start paying a mortgage. We're ready to be somewhere else in our lives," Gary says.

As residents of Oak Bluffs, Erin and Gary currently have no town-sponsored options for affordable housing. A recent auction of town-owned land solicited, and secured, market-value offers. Gary and Erin never even got to raise their paddle to make an offer on a half-acre parcel on California avenue. Within three bids, the price reached $275,000 - exceeding the Simmons' limit by nearly $100,000, a cap Erin and Gary set after subtracting the cost of buying a modular home from their mortgage capabilities. The parcel, the only one large enough to support the size house they need, went to a local developer.

And stringent residency requirements disqualify Erin and Gary from other town-based initiatives.

Town-driven approaches, Erin says, mask the severity of the housing shortage - a problem not confined within town borders.

"People see this as a town issue. Our town doesn't seem to care," she says. "This is an issue facing the whole Island. People need to see it that way."

Names on a List

Erin and Gary's names sit on a list in Jean Kelleher's real estate office. Jean keeps handy this list of buyers - five would-be investors, and a handful of local families - looking for Island bargains. The Simmons' phone doesn't ring much.

"In this price range, every office has a list of people looking," Ms. Kelleher says on a Friday morning in June as she types in $250,000 and $350,000 as bookend price limits for a search on LINK, the database of property listings shared by Island brokers.

"Just nine months ago, the low end was between $250,000 and $275,000. Now, it's over $300,000," she says.

Over the last nine months, LINK tracked the sale of 67 homes for less than $350,000. Of those, about half sold for less than $300,000. But in less than a year's time, brokers say, that price range practically vanished. The type of house that existed in this range has now settled near $400,000.

"They've got a few options - rent for the rest of their lives, leave the Island or jump into the market with something less than perfect," Ms. Kelleher adds as a list of only six properties pops up on her computer screen.

Two of the houses are in the Camp Ground - where homes are sold though the land underneath is not, and for which the only Island lending institution granting mortgages requires an often prohibitive down payment. The cheapest is a two-bedroom condominium - yet to be built - selling for $295,000. The others: a 900 square-foot, two-bedroom cottage for $315,000; another two-bedroom ranch for $329,000, and, finally, a two-bedroom ranch with a total of 600 square feet for $339,000.

Within days of Ms. Kelleher's search, one of the gingerbread homes and the $315,000 two-bedroom cottage will be under agreement. Another low-end property also found a buyer: a 400-square foot cottage with septic problems, advertised at $235,000.

At the bottom of the real estate barrel, brokers say, buyers face crawl space instead of a full basement, two bedrooms instead of three and electric heat instead of oil. Nearly all need more than minor renovations and updating.

"God knows if you can even live in them. Island families look for something better to come along, but investors look at that and say they can do something with it. Year-round people need to get into a home that's livable," said Alan Schweikert of Ocean Park Realty, an office dealing primarily in lower-end homes.

"Houses in this price range are barely suitable for a family. It's nearly impossible for a family to find a home for less than $400,000," he adds.

Intensifying the scramble is an edge most off-Island buyers have: They don't need to dicker. The last three homes in this price range sold by Ms. Kelleher went to mainland buyers wanting second homes, each of whom offered the full asking price. In one such sale, the buyer signed the purchase agreement without even seeing the house.

"Island families have to revisit their expectations. It doesn't have to be their dream house. Just get in the market," Ms. Kelleher says, reciting her oft-repeated advice to young Island buyers. "If you don't get in, you'll be on the sidelines forever."

Erin and Gary know all about modifying their visions. Without skipping a beat, Erin describes her original dream house - a two-story colonial with three bedrooms, an extra room for the other child they hope to have, a pea gravel driveway with a walkway up to the front door, a nice green lawn surrounded by, yes, a white picket fence.

"Now, we would go visit a one-bedroom ranch with expansion possibilities," Erin says with a laugh.

Numbers Crunching

Erin and Gary will still be paying off loans for their masters degrees when Avery is a college sophomore. They write a check for $600 a month toward college loans - the reality of having grown up in modest-income families and choosing a profession in which a second degree is practically a standard requirement for job placement.

As newlyweds just three years ago, Erin and Gary faced lingering credit card debt, accumulated through college and while Erin was student teaching.

"When we first checked to see how much of a mortgage we could get, we were humbled to learn it was only $235,000. We knew we were in trouble and had to work off some debt before we could even think about buying a house. We really tightened our belt," Gary says.

In less than two years, the couple erased over $35,000 of debt. With a below-market monthly rent of only $1,200 - a deal offered by an Island family who wanted a teacher to live in their house while away from the Vineyard for several years - Erin and Gary have now saved just over $10,000 toward a down payment. With interest rates at an all-time low, the couple now qualifies for a loan of nearly $310,000 - taking advantage of first-time home buyer programs that allow them to put down just three per cent.

Luckily, Avery's child care costs are less than $500 a month - compensation the Simmonses offer to Erin's mother for hours missed from her job at the Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce.

"We really are lucky. We've got all these things going for us. But we know the longer we wait, the higher the prices will go," Erin says, while Gary explains that just three years ago when they knew they couldn't push into the housing market, buildable lots sold for $125,000. Now, a buildable lot for less than $200,000 is rare.

"It makes me wonder how much further behind we'll be the longer we wait," Gary says.

It's a common refrain for the young professionals whose jobs don't entail overtime pay, says Carol Borselle, a broker for Martha's Vineyard Mortgage Company.

"The young salaried family is the one in trouble. The self-employed people seem better able to get their hands on the money. But the professionals are the ones who can't seem to put the money away [for a down payment]," said Ms. Borselle.

College debt adds a hurdle that's hard to surpass.

"It's tough. Their positions require them to have a secondary education. Many times, it's their downfall because if they ever default [on these payments], it stays with them a long time," Ms. Borselle adds.

Fears of Giving Up

Lately, fear of having to give up has been creeping into Erin and Gary's minds more than they like to admit.

"A lot of people say we're crazy and that we should move. That's the absolute last resort. There's no way I'm going to give in to that. We're committed to being here, but a lot of people in our situation are packing up and going every single day. We're not alone in this," Gary says.

The clock is ticking for the Simmonses. In less than two years, their landlords will be returning. And every month that passes, Erin and Gary watch home prices nudge even further out of their reach.

"I have this awful feeling that the rug will be pulled out from under me - that we won't be able to find that house. I can't feel settled in my life with that fear. I just want to wake up and know it's where I'm going to live for the rest of my life and not worry that everything I love will be taken away," says Erin.

"In two years time, I don't want to get on that boat and leave because we couldn't make it work. That would break my heart."