Aquinnah broke ground Thursday on a project to build four new affordable housing units on what would soon become Carl Widdiss Way.

Four affordable apartments are planned for the lot near town hall. — Ray Ewing

Named for the former selectman and tribal elder who died in 2014, Carl Widdiss, the new apartment units are a collaboration between the town of Aquinnah, the nonprofit Island Housing Trust, and Southwest Construction, which began work on the site earlier this month. At the groundbreaking ceremony Thursday, town officials, residents, and tribal members honored Mr. Widdiss and his legacy to the town.

A longtime housing and indigenous rights advocate, Mr. Widdiss served on the Aquinnah select board for nine years and served on the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribal Housing Authority for more than 15 years. He famously led the campaign to rename Gay Head to its tribal name, Aquinnah, telling the New York Times at the time, “I guess it’s simple. An Indian place should have an Indian name.”

The site of the apartment complex had originally been planned for another parcel in town that first went up for sale in the 1990s, said community preservation committee chair Derrill Bazzy. At the time, Mr. Widdiss urged the town to purchase it with affordable housing in mind. The project was finally made possible in part by $550,000 in community preservation funding, Mr. Bazzy said.

“This was really a vision he had,” Mr. Bazzy said. “It took a while, but here we are.”

Select board member Juli Vanderhoop addresses the crowd. — Ray Ewing

Residents old and young remembered Mr. Widdiss for his warmth, sagacity, and handiness with a tow should your car ever fall in a ditch.

“If you needed help, he was there,” Aquinnah Wampanoag tribal member Carole Vandal said. “He uplifted everyone.”

In her speech to attendees, select board member Juli Vanderhoop said that affordable housing and indigenous rights are shared causes, given the long history of Wampanoag displacement by white settlers.

“We might not see what we’re losing when we don’t build affordable housing, but what we’re losing is our community,” she said.

Construction started earlier this month. — Ray Ewing

Tucked between dense foliage on a lot not far from town hall, the apartments will serve as the first phase of a larger plan to revitalize the town center with a new playground and “food forest” of indigenous edible plants. The town devoted $125,000 in community preservation funds to build the playground at town meeting last spring, but that funding only covers a portion of the $264,000 project which kicks off this October. The rest is currently being fundraised.

While the town center is still a long way from its final form, Mr. Bazzy said the town has been working with Southwest Construction with the goal of moving families in by July 1 of next year. It’s an accelerated timeline, he admitted, but one he thinks the firm is capable of meeting.

For many feeling the direct effects of the Island real estate market, the apartments won’t come a moment too soon. Aquinnah resident Faith Smalley remarked how she grew up playing in the forests where attendees now stood, never imagining that she’d be able to afford to go back to the Island. Thanks to this project, she said, others won’t have that concern.

“Today we get to cultivate the foundations of four more families,” Ms. Smalley said.