Martha’s Vineyard has been described as wealthy, white and elite, but there’s another side to the island

Fishing shacks and boats lined a waterway in the Menemsha Basin in Chilmark.Carlin Stiehl for the Boston Globe

Wilson resides in the Other Vineyard, where many of the 20,000 year-round residents struggle to make ends meet, housing is desperately scarce and increasingly unaffordable, and the growing number of immigrants is rapidly diversifying the population.

She and her husband, a landscaper, made the difficult decision to separate their family to live with parents and others after the landlord raised the rent on their three-bedroom home to $2,600 a month. Credit card bills go unpaid, Wilson’s phone has been disconnected, and she fears her car may be seized.

“I’ve lived on the island for most of my life, and this is the worst I’ve seen,” said Wilson, a US citizen from Jamaica who is staying in Falmouth as she searches accommodation on the island. “I am an immigrant. I work hard. I have never been arrested. I became a citizen. I never looked for documents. But I need help.

Alvia WIlson stood outside the hotel where she is staying in Falmouth waiting to move to affordable accommodation on Martha’s Vineyard which will not be available until October 1. Barry Chin/Personal Globe

The scheme by DeSantis, a Republican who could run for president, has drawn national attention to the island, where residents have rushed to help the 48 migrants, many of whom said they were lured aboard charter flights in Texas with false promises of jobs and housing in Massachusetts.

Beyond the spotlight, many islanders bristled at the suggestion – circulated in conservative media – that they had quickly turned their backs on migrants, mostly Venezuelans, who arrived unannounced on September 14 and were moved to temporary accommodation on Cape Cod two days later. The opposite happened; the inhabitants immediately mobilized to help.

“I was frustrated because a lot of people were saying things that weren’t true, that we’re just white, rich people here and there’s no diversity. People don’t see our struggles,” said Maura Morrison, case manager for Harbor Homes of Martha’s Vineyard, an umbrella organization for the island’s homelessness prevention programs.

It’s a struggle that Morrison, a single mother of two, can personally identify with: she can’t afford a home on the island where she was born and raised. Although the Vineyard’s population has increased by 24% from 2010 to 2020, its housing stock has only increased by 2%.

Additionally, the Vineyard’s average weekly salary of $1,094 in 2020 was 70% of the state average, and the median price of his home — now approaching $1.3 million — was more than double that. that of the state, based on an assessment of the island’s housing needs.

“We have people living in the woods calling me all the time looking for shelter,” said Morrison, who is also Dukes County’s homelessness prevention coordinator.

The increase in the number of summer rentals listed on websites such as AirBnb has exacerbated the problem, housing advocates said. These transactions have been lucrative enough to cause some landlords to pull their properties off the market during the colder months, further reducing the pool of available rentals.

And as the wealth gap widens across the vineyard, so does racial and ethnic diversity.

Nearly a quarter of the year-round population is now multiracial, according to the latest census.

The island’s year-round black population also grew during this time, growing by 67% to 798 people in 2020 from 477 people in 2010, nearly three times the growth rate of white residents. And in the summer, when the island’s population can reach 200,000, throngs of black families continue to vacation here, as they have for decades.

The Vineyard schools are also a barometer of change.

The number of public school students receiving English help has more than doubled since 2016, to 472 students in 2021 from 210 six years ago, according to information from Dukes County Superintendent Martina Thornton. . A total of 94% of these students hear Portuguese at home, reflecting the island’s thriving Brazilian community.

Morrison was surprised by the changes she saw three years ago when she returned to live in the vineyard.

“When I was in school, I could count on my hand about five African Americans and a small handful of Brazilians in the whole of high school,” Morrison said.

The growing diversity reflects a Vineyard very different from the image that some are concocting on the national scene. Fox News host Tucker Carlson, for example, posted this sarcastic tweet after the arrival of the migrants:

“For hundreds of years, Martha’s Vineyard has suffered the harrowing effects of its own whiteness. The inhabitants of the island understood that there was only one remedy. They badly needed diversity. Help finally arrived from an unlikely source yesterday: Ron DeSantis.

In another example, a plane circled the island on Monday towing a banner that read: “Vineyard Hypocrites,” an apparent reference to the transfer of migrants from Edgartown to Joint Base Cape Cod, where more humanitarian and shelter resources were available.

Sue Diverio, executive director of Harbor Homes, said she, like Morrison, felt the squeeze of life at Vineyard.

“I make a good salary, but I can’t afford to buy a house here,” said Diverio, who pays rent to share a house with another woman. “And if you can find something all year round, that’s amazing.”

One of Diverio’s clients, a former model named Suzanne, said she had lived in her car for three weeks, had already been taken into custody by the island’s police and was was struggling to regain her footing in Harbor Homes women’s transitional housing.

Sue Diverio, executive director of Harbor Homes in Oak Bluffs (left) and Suzanne Lindsay, a former model who has to live in transitional housing at Harbor Homes. Barry Chin/Personal Globe

The housing crisis “stunned me. I couldn’t imagine there could be so many homeless people,” Suzanne said. “Even if you had money, you couldn’t find a place unless you knew someone.”

Diverio and Morrison praised the island’s response to the arrival of the migrants.

“Everyone jumped on board. Everyone was called to action. People donated, resources were donated and there were no issues,” Morrison said.

For Esther Reid, 55, a native of Jamaica who works as a waitress, welcoming migrants reflects her experience of more than 22 years on the island.

“Oh my God, it’s always been so welcoming,” said Reid, who is from Oak Bluffs. “They are very useful on this island.”

For the Reverend Vincent “Chip” Seadale, rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Edgartown, the response was “a thing of wondrous beauty.”

The migrants were housed in the small church for two nights while an outpouring of aid – food, clothing and offers for medical aid – prompted police to demand that there be no more donations at the site .

“The islanders all understand that we have a role to play in supporting each other,” Seadale said. “They immediately knew what to do. We have used all the experience we have gained over many years.

“It has a lot to do with the island mentality,” added the rector. “We can’t get off the island to get a lot of things that the rest of America takes for granted. We have to do it ourselves.

For Seadale, the perception that “we’re all rich, we’re all liberal” on the vineyard is baffling. In reality, he added, “no one is everything”.


Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at [email protected]

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