Give Me Your Huddled Dwellings Yearning to Breathe Free
Nantucket has a long history of moving houses around the island like checkers, but no one has put the tradition to better use than Housing Nantucket (hereafter referred to as HN). By now HN is famous, on island and off, for soliciting house donations the way The Salvation Army appeals for used cars. These donated houses are rehabbed into affordable rental units and clustered on HN’s properties. Since its inception in 1994 Housing Nantucket has created 31 rental units. Great… except that with engines raring to go, they are back-logged on both rental applications and house donations because they have run out of land.
With luck HN will win a slice of the pie known as 4 Fairgrounds, town land that has been cleared for lease to develop housing—what shape that housing will take is yet to be determined. In the meantime, the ever-resourceful Anne Kuszpa, HN’s Executive Director, is trying to open up new frontiers in recycling Nantucket’s unwanted houses. She has already introduced the island’s first Local Initiative Program or LIP, a 40B housing development which requires local support from town officials. After Kuszpa explained what’s involved in undertaking a LIP initiative, I understood why there haven’t been a slew of them. It takes patience and dedication and, frankly, a very persuasive advocate like Kuszpa.
Kuszpa’s LIP began with a lot HN owned at 7 Surfside Road, across from the High School. Because the area is zoned commercial, only one residence is permitted on a lot. The lot’s existing cottage is small (one bedroom/one bath) and would therefore contribute very little to HN’s ever-increasing pressure to create affordable rentals. Kuszpa wanted not one, but four small cottages on the lot, a veritable small village a la Sconset. So Kuszpa went to bat, following requirements of a LIP that all local stakeholders in an initiative be brought on board: the Board of Selectmen, the housing officials, and last but not least, the abutting neighbors. Then the whole package was subject to state review and a site visit.
To hear Anne Kuszpa talk about the project is to know why she succeeded. She describes tucking the cottages into corners surrounded by a line of trees and surrounding the whole with strawberry and blueberry bushes so residents walking home can pick a handful and pop them into their mouths. In HN’s plan the house will be moved and, like the other three houses, snuggle into a corner where a “gorgeous tree” will separate it from another cottage. A second cottage, hailing from the Madaket Road has already been secured. It has two bedrooms. So she only needs two more dwellings, small in scale, which she feels confident she’ll find within the year because finding unwanted cottages is apparently much easier than finding land. Parking for eight cars will be “tucked” into the back, away from Surfside Road.
On an island where much of the most expensive real estate is in high density areas, where tourists flock to photograph houses that are crowded together, sometimes within fifteen feet of each other’s roof lines, it is ironic that one of the most common objections to affordable housing proposals is their potential density. Kuszpa is critically aware that, to many people, affordable housing evokes bad visuals: barren landscaping, porches and lawns overflowing with “stuff”. “People have a lot of stuff,” Anne shrugged, “We’ve got to figure out the landscaping and the siting of the houses so it’s hidden and contained.”
On one of my many trips to Surfing Hydrangea, I asked owner Craig Beni whether he had ever worked on landscaping affordable housing projects. “No,” he said, “but I’ve offered.” I suggested that there might be a way to route unwanted landscape material, both his own sometimes homesick trees and shrubs, as well as the truckloads of uprooted, unwanted gardens currently dumped at our favorite landfill. Craig said he was certainly game but with a serious caveat: donations need oversight, careful planning as well as follow-through. “Strawberries are great,” he said, “but they’re not easy to grow and maintain. Are you going to have a water irrigation system? If not, how much maintenance are you signing on for?” Like a pet owner interviewing a prospective “adopter”, Craig was not about to hand over living specimens to a custodian who couldn’t care for them…which meant that he was simply asking to be invited into the planning process.
I visited 7 Surfside a few days ago. One lot away from the infamous intersection of Surfside and every other street on the island, it now contains one tiny house and two shovel trucks ready to go. The existing house sits in the middle of the lot, the way many post WW2 suburban houses do, diminishing its share of privacy. Its scale is a throwback to pre-real estate boom times. Were the site not commercially zoned, odds are a much larger (two story) new house would occupy the spot. Would that “density” have been better than the four little one-story cottages HN is planning? The lot is edged with trees and there is indeed one lovely old tree in the middle of a stretch of lawn. That tree’s branches will be able to reach over two of the small cottages, shading them. With the right shrubs and fencing, the little village of four dwellings might become Nantucket’s next postcard.