Hoping for Housing in a Sea of Million-Dollar Homes

Dec 20, 2016

This spring 22 homes will go up for sale in a new development on Nantucket. Alicia Briscol, a postal worker on island, is hoping to buy one.

When Briscol  first moved to Nantucket in 2006, she realized two things. First: she loved this island off the coast of Massachusetts.

“I love the quiet and the quaintness,” she said, “the cobblestone street. I was just amazed by - this place is in the United States!”

And second: if you’re not a millionaire, it’s really hard to find a place to live.

“I started out by the dorms, at 14 Suane Street, and then to Tisdale Circle, and then…”

A lot of the times she could only afford to rent a single room. She’d have to hang sheets from the ceiling to separate out rooms for herself and her kids. And even then, the rent could be as much as fourteen hundred dollars a month.

“I could not, literally could not find anywhere affordable with myself and my kids,” she said.

For year-round residents of Nantucket – many of whom work in service jobs that support the island’s tourism industry – finding stable housing is a huge challenge.

Luckily, in 2011 Briscol got a spot in one of Nantucket’s few government-supported rental units. Her rent is on a sliding scale; it never costs more than a third of her monthly income. And it has three bedrooms – one for her and each of her kids.

“This is the kitchen area,” she said, showing me around. “I have that as a storeroom type thing.”

The stability of her new apartment has allowed Briscol to save some money, and she’s been able to quit her seasonal job at a resort. Now she works year-round at the post office and is looking to take the next step toward making this island her permanent home.

Briscol has entered a lottery to buy a house of her own in a new affordable housing development on the island. If she gets picked, she will get to be something she never expected: a homeowner on Nantucket.

Briscol has entered a lottery to buy a house of her own in a new affordable housing project being developed on the island by the Hyannis-based Housing Assistance Corporation. If she gets picked, she’ll get to be something she never expected: a homeowner on Nantucket.

“You have to submit, November 4th is the deadline, and then after that they let you know,” she said with a laugh.

The development she’s applying to is called Sachem’s Path. Last spring, a lottery was held for the first fifteen homes in Sachem’s Path. Briscol entered that one, but it didn’t work out. There are still 22 homes remaining for this current lottery.

But winning the lottery isn’t the end of the process. If she does wins, she’ll still need to buy the house. And the homes range from about $300,000 to $500,000.

$500,000 doesn’t qualify as "affordable" in most of the country. But as far as home prices go, Nantucket is not like most of the country. The average house here costs 1.2 million dollars.

The challenge of providing affordable housing for people of just about every income bracket on the island isn’t new. In fact, Sachem’s Path is just the final piece of a decades-long project to develop housing on the island for working people. It started back in 1984, when the town set aside a vacant piece of land in the middle of the island for affordable housing development.

Since 1994, it’s been the job of Renee Ceely, head of the Nantucket Housing Authority, to fill it up.

“It gets kind of complicated,” Ceely said, “but that plan behind your head…”

We’re sitting in Ceely’s office, and the plan she’s referring to is a giant map of the original parcel the town gave to the Housing Authority. The map shows all the types of developments that have been built there over the years.

“And this was built with a federal loan,” she said, pointing to different projects. “This was built with financial assistance from the state, and this was…”

It’s an island within an island, affordable housing in a sea of million-dollar homes.

One of the first projects built on the site was traditional low-income rental housing. That’s where Briscol currently lives.

Ceely said more homes need to be built on the island, for people of just about every income level. It's just hard to do in a place like Nantucket, a small island that seems dedicated to both environmental conservation and historic preservation.

“We can’t keep building and building an building” Ceely said. “At some point in time we have to be done.”

To be clear, Ceely doesn’t think that time will come soon. But large projects like Sachem’s Path will become harder to develop.

In response to this, a network of organizations, like Housing Nantucket, has grown around the Housing Authority to tackle the problem in creative ways.

And even with Ceely’s talk of being "done", she doesn’t seem to really believe it. Sachem’s Path is complete, and her island within an island is about to be all filled up – but she’s already onto a new project. She’s trying to create a fund for the Housing Authority to buy more land in the future. And after that?

“I always keep this picture on my bulletin board,” she said. “Back in the early 1900s, Nantucket had these massive Victorian hotels. Now, look that that, what if we recreated that? And turned that into a bunch of affordable apartments? What would be wrong with that? Sitting out there on the veranda. I love it! I like to keep that.”

Regardless of what gets built on Nantucket in the future, Ceely is thrilled that for the families who end up moving into Sachem’s Path, there’s going to be a new, permanent home on this island for them very soon. And Briscol’s family might be one of them. But even if she doesn’t get picked, she’s not planning on leaving.

“I call it my fairy tale island,” Briscol said. “That’s how I refer to it. It’s so peaceful and calm. And you have to really plan to come here, you can’t just arrive.”

Dan Richards is a student with the Transom Story Workshop, which is run by WCAI's production partner, Atlantic Public Media. Dan reports that since this story was completed, Alicia learned that she did not receive one of the homes at Sachem's Path.