Price of Admission to Nantucket Club

by Robert P. Barsanti

“Family desperately seeking housing.”

The sheet of paper has been rained on and faded in the early summer sun. It hangs on the message board near The Hub, next to the lost sunglasses, misplaced cats, and forgotten rock bands.

They were being forced out. There were three children with a fourth imminent. Year-round housing would be great, but anything at all, at this point, would be fine.

I’m not sure what point they are at, exactly. I hope that they have found some housing. Perhaps some retired school teacher with an empty house has rented it to them so that he can live in the trailer out back.

But they are probably still looking. Or they left.

I feel a twinge of guilt seeing the ad. I could not house them, should I want to, and I don’t know anyone with a spare house to rent at a number that a growing family could afford. I would love to offer them three bedrooms, two baths, a big yard, and white picket fence but that house got sold for a million five, then was torn down and replaced.

Most of my time on island has been living the gypsy life, shifting from one rental to another. Twice, I shoved high school students out of their rooms for the summer. I have lived over garages, in carriage houses, guest cottages, and, for one notable winter, in Codfish Park. The gypsy life requires some sacrifice. For ten years, I only owned as much furniture as I could move in my Jeep, I kept my ears open for possible openings, and I made peace with dropping a king’s ransom in rent. Gypsies can’t afford to make enemies, since they never know whose roof they will sleep under.

I would like to say that I earned the roof I finally called my own, but that wouldn’t be true. It required luck, friends, and family. But with help, I was able to join the Nantucket Club.

Most islanders would like to tell you a hard work story about their island homes. They would like to tell you that if you work hard and live frugally, you can do it here. Those people who leave just don’t have the moxie, even if they have three-and-a-half kids. They would like to tell you that they scraped together the money for a down payment, then worked three jobs and shingled the place on the weekends before they moved in when it was only studs and plastic sheets. The wife learned how to plumb the place when she was pregnant with the first child and he took a job as an electrician to get the parts for cheap. They just finished painting the kid’s room the weekend before the water broke. They still haven’t finished the baseboards in the master bedroom, but…

The ugly truth is that they got help, just as I did. Islanders would rather talk about sex than money; and they will lie about both. Perhaps they got help from Grandpa Chester advancing them thousands of dollars. Perhaps someone gave them the word about 22 Weeweeder before it hit the market. Perhaps they just got some free work done. But nobody does it on his own out here. Not if they are honest.

Even with all of that, luck is the rich grandfather every Nantucket householder has to acknowledge with a nod and Christmas card. Luck got you the job on-island. Luck kept you healthy. Luck kept the tourists coming. Luck kept the interest rates down and the deposit reasonable. Luck kept making appointments.

Opportunity is only a phone message. You still need to show up, work hard, and pay your bills. Your work needs to command attention, respect, and top dollar. Fools don’t last long.

But Opportunity isn’t calling here anymore. Most construction jobs come and go on The Gray Lady III. Building lots start at $500,000, which would translate to something like a $100,000 down payment before a hole gets dug. Finally, as the older islanders pass away, the rental stock dwindles and the price increases; most of the bedrooms I have rented have been long since converted to marble kitchens and walk-in closets. What you can rent, you can’t afford. If you have to pay two-thirds of your monthly salary on rent, you won’t have too much left to save for that $100,000 down payment.

In the last thirty years, the only practical solution to the housing crisis runs back and forth to Hyannis. The rest of us have a membership to the Nantucket Club. And those memberships only get more valuable (and more costly). If we really wanted to have affordable housing, the Land Bank would pave the fairways at Miacomet and sub-divide into quarter acre lots. We did a nice job building up the mini-golf course. Think about what we could do with a real one. And we won’t.

Everyone who has a roof and a door has thousands of good reasons to send that poor family on their way back to the mainland. We want to keep the real estate prices high. We want to keep the housing supply low. And we want Town & Country to keep putting Sconset and Main Street on the cover. If that means that we can’t keep teachers, nurses, and policemen in anything but dormitories and ferry boat seats, that is the cost of doing club business.

We will eventually get pushed out of Club Nantucket. The greens fees and membership dues will drive out everyone who doesn’t have a nicer mainland home. Eventually, we won’t make enough money for the mortgage, the electric, the cable, the heating oil, the taxes, and the dump. We will look at the pile of bills on one hand and the value of our shingled lottery ticket, and cash out. Or there will be a fire.

As the young family is leaving, the boats are coming into the boat basin. Kristin, Sorcerer II, Liberty, and Young America have all pulled in for the summer from Florida, Texas, Bermuda, and Panama. Another season has begun for us. Our ships have come in, also, whether we want to recognize our good luck or not. They will go out again.