Resting unfinished on 18th street in Edgartown is a two-story, two-bedroom wonder. The wonder is not revealed so much in the sturdy shingled Colonial construction itself — though its new owners will tell you proudly they “just love this house so much” — but in the story of how it came to be here at all.
This home should have met the bulldozer this time last year, by all wisdom.
That’s what happens to such houses. They are second houses, bought by people who found just the right spot on the Vineyard but not the just-right house on that spot. It’s what happens because, even on an Island starved for affordable housing, where there is an active network of housing advocates and myriad creative policies aimed at the problem — still, the cheapest, easiest, most efficient thing to do with a house you don’t want here is to knock it down and haul away the pieces.
That didn’t seem right to Jonathan and Jennifer Blum. The Kentucky couple have owned a place on Morse street in Edgartown for about 20 years. Their twin boys, now 16, have been coming here for summers since they were four months old. All these years, while the family stayed to splash around Fuller street beach or fish off Memorial wharf, Jonathan Blum took three flights up and three back, every Monday and Friday, to his Louisville job in the restaurant business. “The Island is our home,” he said simply.
Down the line from his office recently, Mr. Blum added he’d just read his son Christopher’s term paper, “and it was all about his love for the Island, its place in his soul; we all truly love the Island.” They all were horrified, too, he said, by the stories of the critical housing shortage, and of the ongoing Vineyard shuffle, when year-rounders shuffle into whatever accommodation they can find in summer, just to stay here.
Last year the Blums purchased property on Planting Field Way, where they plan to retire and live full-time in coming years. They found themselves with what they describe as a great house — a then-three-bedroom place built in 1985 — that nevertheless would not meet their family’s needs over the long term. They had three options: raze it, move it and rent it out, or move it and donate it. Immediately they settled on donating it.
And so third-generation Edgartown firefighter Michael Brown, his young son Joshua, and Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank teller Lindsay Lamana, will have a home of their own soon. Taped together with Tyvek, “We got the best Christmas gift we’ll ever get,” Ms. Lamana said.
That this seemingly simple good deed came to pass, despite some 18 months of one obstacle after another, is something to be celebrated like the Christmas story itself.
Take It Away
David Vigneault sees a lot of property in his job as executive director of the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority. Mostly he sees it and then signs off so people can knock it down. The town of Edgartown has a demolition delay bylaw which requires that any property with existing structures must be offered for affordable housing before a building permit will be issued. Mr. Vigneault’s agency is the clearinghouse.
“Far too often, this results in nothing more than site visits and a little Web research on Vision Appraisal and a thank-you letter from us saying we are unable to utilize it,” he said. “With the letter, owners can officially proceed with demolition.”
In the past four years, he has seen upwards of 70 delay referrals, resulting in just two material harvests and this one house move. “Many times the structure would not be worth moving. But oftentimes there are just beautiful opportunities . . . that go for naught,” he said.
The quality of Vineyard refuse, he added, is quite high.
He calls the law a great idea. “But the fact is, moves and/or materials-recycling happen far too infrequently for three very simple reasons: lack of available land, lack of money for the move [which can cost upwards of $80,000], or timing. Those constellations don’t often align.
“In the case of the Blums, they made all of those constellations align. They gave us a year’s head’s-up — they weren’t going to officially start their bid for a building permit for a year. But they were aware of the bylaw, and very supportive of housing efforts around here. They wanted to see their house moved and reused. So they let us know in written and verbal contact and offered to stay involved.”
Mr. Vigneault turned to the Island Affordable Housing Fund and to the town of Edgartown’s housing committee, where Sharon Purdy of Sandpiper Realty was expecting the call. The town committee had moved four houses from various locations in Edgartown to Metcalf Road before the bylaw. Mrs. Purdy is a longstanding friend and associate of the Blums and knew they were planning to build anew; they had talked over their plans with her.
Unfortunately, Mr. Vigneault said, what became clear was that, though the Blum house was a very nice structure, it would have to travel up Pease’s Point Way, a narrow, tree-canopied passage. Cutting up the house to move it would significantly increase the costs. He tried to think of back routes. But it didn’t look like it was going to happen, and in June Island Affordable Housing, with no land to move it to anyway, decided they weren’t able to proceed.
“So I sent the letter, ‘Thank you for your offer . . . can’t make use of it,” Mr. Vigneault said. “And Jonathan Blum called and said, ‘We don’t want to accept your letter. Let’s go the extra mile.’ ”
Enter Andre Mallegol, a retired software executive who works with Habitat for Humanity, on its board and on its work sites every weekend. “He’s an absolute dynamo,” marveled Mr. Blum. “This doesn’t happen without Andre’s effort,” said Mr. Vigneault. “Well,” shrugged Mr. Mallegol himself, “I began with what I thought would be something simpler.
“It ended up on my desk after the trust passed on it, and I called Jonathan Blum. I wanted to make sure he understood what the donor had to contribute, because it’s pretty expensive,” said Mr. Mallegol. “He was very eager and enthusiastic, so we left it that if I could find a piece of property . . .”
A short time later Mr. Mallegol discovered a substandard, unbuildable lot on the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road priced at $50,000. Such lots can only be used for affordable housing. This one was big enough to support a two-bedroom home with proper septic system. He called Mr. Blum, he called Mrs. Purdy, they were on board. Excited, he called the selling agent.
But someone had gotten there before them.
This is Not a Prank
“Our hopes were kind of dashed,” Mr. Mallegol said about finding the land under agreement. Then he thought, why don’t we move the house anyway?
They tracked down the people who had signed the purchase and sale agreement — Mr. Brown and Ms. Lamana. “I called the lady at like eight in the morning,” Mr. Mellegol recalled, “And I said, “This is not a crank call . . . would you consider a ready-to-go house plunked down on your lot? You’d be responsible for getting the lot ready, the foundation, the septic. But it’s a very nice house.”
Ms. Lamana recalled: “We both kind of thought it was a joke. Who wants to give us a house? We were shocked, but, sure, we’ll see what happens.” They took Michael’s son Joshua to a site visit with Mr. Mallegol. “I remember Andre asking us, ‘So are you guys interested, would you like to take it?’ and Joshua tugging at us, ‘Dad, Dad, Lindsay,’ and us saying, ‘We’re talking!’ and Joshua saying, ‘Is this going to be my house some day?’ And we just knew, no matter what it took, it would be,” she recalled.
They needed approval from town boards to use the lot. Problem was, it was landlocked; a curb would have to be cut. During one hearing about that issue, engineer Dick Barbini came to them with bad news: the lot was not clean. There was a septic field on the lot. It was unusable.
“Our hopes were dashed a second time,” Mr. Mallegol said. “We were back to square one.” And time was running out. “Now the house had to get off its foundation and get out of there, and we had no place to go with it.” There was a big meeting where everyone resolved to keep trying, but admitted it might not happen.
It was September. Mr. Brown proposed to Ms. Lamana at Fenway Park during a Red Sox game. She accepted. The couple was living with Mr. Brown’s parents. Next door to them was a lot that was open but not on the market. Maybe it could be?
Mrs. Purdy took it from there. “Jean and Red Ward, who owned the land, put the final piece in the puzzle,” Mrs. Purdy said. “They made it happen, at a price and under terms that were amenable and conducive.” She points out that Mrs. Ward, Island-born and raised, is descended from Manuel Correllus, namesake of the state forest. “It’s history going down here, an old Island name helping another Island family,” Mrs. Purdy said, giddy with the rare chance to sell to a year-round buyer.
The land was donated to the Island Housing Trust, a tax-favorable deal with a perpetual affordability restriction.
Meanwhile, the Blums still had a builder ready to begin, but the 18th street deal wouldn’t close until Nov. 1. “We were all dressed up with nowhere to go still,” Mr. Mallegol sighed.
Now it was Goodales who helped, offering to camp the house in their sand and gravel pit. Brickstone Construction and Trademark Carpentry had stepped in to modularize the Blum house. When the house left Planting Field Way — with eight feet sliced out of the middle to fit the new lot — it was as several modules loaded on trucks.
Ms. Lamana stayed at work that day, too worried it would fall off and her dream house would be smashed somewhere along the journey. But it was safely trucked out to the sand pit, where it sat for a month covered in tarps until finally a foundation was poured on 18th street — with Joshua writing his name in it.
And at last the Blum house was trucked to 18th street and reassembled like square pieces of layer cake put in place with a crane. “That was the best day,” said Mr. Mallegol, who tirelessly facilitated the house and other donations through Habitat for Humanity.
If the couple ever sells the house, there’s a cap on how much appreciation they can gain, four per cent per annum, and it must be sold to another income-qualified buyer.
Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank worked to arrange financing and structure a working budget for the young couple.
“Our strong preference was for it to be in Edgartown,” said Mr. Blum. “But our only stipulation was that it be held in affordable housing in perpetuity. We wanted to donate it and have it help people who are supporting the infrastructure in our community.”
Ms. Lamana said the wonder is still settling in for her.
“Last year my father got diagnosed with cancer, and I found out two days after I moved to the Vineyard to live with Michael,” she said. “I remember calling them . . . the cancer had forced him to retire, he was worried about helping us have a home, and he saw that even from far away we were blessed. I was born in New York and lived most of my life there — this whole situation would never happen there, that people would see a young couple trying to make it and come from behind the scenes to help out. We’ve had so much support.”
Mr. Brown is a fine tradesman, his fiancee winked, and since the house arrived he has had lots of help from other firefighters who also are very skilled. Work goes on every day; the couple is funding the renovations and completion.
The Blums not only donated the house and paid to move it, they threw in many of the furnishings, housewares and appliances. They also paid for town water to be installed for the entire street.
David Vigneault says Edgartown’s demolition delay bylaw is part of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s Island Plan discussion. But it needs significant overhaul, he believes. The cost of moving a house, depending on proximity of the new lot and the shape of house, could be more than $80,000, but the bylaw as it exists does not include any provision for those costs to be structured as a donation for the owner.
A similar bylaw on Nantucket does include an averaged cost by appraisal of the demolition and transport of an existing structure as part of the donation. “If you were going to have to pay eighty grand to have it knocked down and carted away — to have that and the value of the building as part of donation for tax considerations . . .” Mr Vig-neault’s voice trails off optimistically. The Blums, he said, told him, “This is not about that, we’re not looking at this as something against tax liability.”
Mr. Blum said only, “It was worth the effort. We were determined to donate the home to Habitat for Humanity and put in the affordable housing pool. We are blessed and feel lucky we found a very nice young couple, with the added benefit they support the community in Edgartown.”
And on a now-empty lot on Planting Field Way, work begins on the Blums’ dream retirement home.