Susanna J. Sturgis   Martha's Vineyard writer and editor
Martha's Vineyard
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The Sudden Sexiness of Affordable Housing

In the early 1980s, while living in Washington, D.C., I read a newspaper article about the housing situation on Cape Cod. Landlords were renting their houses out for big bucks in the summer, but to make a little extra they'd rent them out for little bucks in the winter. The catch was that the tenants had to move out in May. Where did they go? They moved in with relatives, they camped out, they lived in their cars. I was appalled. Less than three years later I was living on the Vineyard, moving twice a year, and thinking it normal. Moral of story: Human beings can get used to almost anything.

In 2001, the year-round place where I'd lived for more than nine years was sold. Once again I was looking for housing. (On Martha's Vineyard, "house-hunting" and "looking for housing" are not the same thing. House-hunters have at least a down payment in hand and some hope of obtaining a mortgage. The rest of us need a place to live, ideally at a rent that will leave enough disposable income to buy groceries.) My life had changed since the days when I moved twice a year, every year. I was now working from home as a freelance editor and writer; the prospect of moving home/office twice a year, changing shipping address and maybe phone number twice a year, was too grim to contemplate. I also had a dog. I'm not poor; last I looked, my income was just a shade or two under the county median. Year-round, affordable, pets OK — why not ask for the moon while you're at it?

I found a year-round house-share that looked pretty good — until the owner decided in late April to evict me in favor of a family who would live there for the summer while the husband redid the roof. Affordable year-round rentals that allowed dogs were scarce enough in September, but in May? I put the word out, took a deep breath, and consulted a lawyer, a tenants' rights advocate, and several acquaintances who had stared down similar predicaments. I decided to sit tight: chances were excellent that legal eviction couldn't be accomplished before fall. My landlady accused me of trying to ruin her life. At the beginning of June, thanks to a miraculous combination of connections and coincidences, I found an apartment within walking distance of Vineyard Haven. My dog was welcome, and I could afford it. I moved at the end of the month.

When I was moving twice a year in the 1980s and early 1990s, the only people who talked about affordable housing were the people who couldn't find it. Now it's the big buzz. I happened to be at the Ag Hall the day after the first Houses on the Move auction, a fundraiser for affordable housing. Some of the sold Houses were being Moved out on flatbeds. I looked at these miniature buildings, assessing: could my dog, my desk, my bed, and I live in that? Not quite, but it was pretty close. I felt a little jaded: all these rich people feeling virtuous for donating large sums of money to solve a problem that their affluence helped create. Could the sudden sexiness of the affordable housing issue have anything to do with the availability of affordable labor to landscape their properties and educate their kids? A few years ago, when business owners couldn't find enough college students to staff their T-shirt shops, inns, and restaurants, there was some handwringing but not much action. Now that the unfillable positions are in the school system and the hospital — now we have a "crisis."

I know, I know: they're not talking about labor, they're talking about "community." The summer "community," the year-round "community," preserving the "community," blah blah blah. Somewhere back in the '90s, some people went out to measure the setbacks and distances between houses on Music Street, trying to discover the secret of the Music Street "community." Oscar Wilde — who as far as I know never had to move twice a year, though he did spend some time in jail — said, "A cynic is one who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing." What would he have made of the attempt to use inches and feet to measure the source of community?

When I'm not feeling cynical, I can empathize with those measurers. I grew up in a west-of-Boston town where community was disappearing and affluent suburbia taking its place, in a family that could name most of its ancestors back to the Mayflower but couldn't muster much of the reciprocal feeling that holds a family together. Early on I went looking for community. Sometimes it was a will o' the wisp, sparking here, flashing there, close at hand but never quite in reach. Sometimes it growled, ugly in its intolerance for attitudes and actions that threatened it, or seemed to.

Living on the Vineyard for twenty years has taught me much about community: where it is, how you find it and foster it, what keeps it going and what undermines it. In my first months community was being included in the holiday traditions of people I'd just met. After a while community was shared experience — swapping stories with people who'd survived the same initiation rites, moving twice a year, waiting tables, painting houses, cleaning houses, cleaning rooms in local inns. Community was listening to people who'd been here a lot longer as they offered glimpses of a web that's been a-spinning since long before I arrived, even long before they were born. Community was people joining together to do things none of them could do alone.

I can't think about community without thinking about Wintertide Coffeehouse. Though it didn't start till the late 1970s, it was the natural outgrowth of the generations-old tradition of islanders entertaining themselves in the winter, when nights were long, the weather cold, jobs scarce, and money hard to come by. Like many of those who sustained it, Wintertide moved frequently. The digs were often spartan, the equipment scrounged, but the coffee was good, the entertainment varied, and the opportunity to hang out with fellow year-rounders on most winter weekends — well, no matter how fine the performances, for many of us this was a large part of the point, the joy of Wintertide Coffeehouse.

Wintertide went year-round in 1991. Volunteers turned a restaurant at Five Corners into an intimate performance space that won raves from musicians, poets, actors, and the audiences that came to see them and each other. For years it thrived, while its many mostly un-affluent supporters waged a continuous, energy-sapping struggle to make the rent. Wintertide faltered badly in its last year or so, so badly that its demise in February 1999 was both an anticlimax and a relief. But Wintertide continues to teach me about community. Wintertide is my phantom coffeehouse, the place where I can't meet friends, the place where I can't produce readings or hear local musicians or celebrate New Year's Eve.

What can Wintertide teach the organizers of the new high-profile push for affordable housing? That it's not just individuals who need places to call their own; it's community organizations. Without the houses of worship, the libraries, the schools and senior centers, where would the Island's most essential institutions be today, in this age of ridiculous rents? For some organizations, a regular meeting place is not enough: they need accessible, visible, easy-to-reach homes. Without these community-fostering spaces, Martha's Vineyard is just a bunch of houses, most of them vacant most of the year.

What Martha's Vineyard has taught me is that the heart of community is need. If you want a multisyllabic word, call it "interdependence." The house- and barn-raisings that warm our community-starved hearts don't happen where everyone can afford to hire a contractor. People are less likely to go next-door for a cup of sugar when they can jump in the SUV and drive to a convenience store that's open till midnight, or call a courier service to do it for them. Coffeehouses and movie theaters don't thrive where most people would rather sit home with the TV, the VCR or DVD player, or the World Wide Web.

So I have this idea, something that the folks with the huge, mostly vacant houses can do to encourage both affordable housing and community: Subdivide your property. Subdivide your house and move, say, a third of it onto the new lot. Rent it out year-round for something like 25 percent of the county's median income per wage-earning tenant. Then go next door and borrow two eggs from your new neighbor. Come home, bake a loaf of banana bread, and take half of it next door. The next week maybe your neighbor will volunteer to look after your dog while you go away for the weekend. Sure you can afford a kennel. Let your neighbor do it anyway.

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