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Nantucket's Ellis Island: Aka Star of the Sea youth hostel

Nantucket's Housing Challenge: Reviving the Commune

New NHA staff housing

Nantucket’s “Star of the Sea” youth hostel is Ellis Island for many of the foreigners seeking seasonal or long-term housing. At $42 a night, the hostel is the cheapest hotel room on the island, albeit a room you share with 20+ other members of your gender. For three weeks after its seasonal opening over Memorial Day weekend, J-1s (international students with limited stay work visas) come in droves, stay for two or three nights, check in with their employer and then scramble to find a rental. The hostel permits no more than seven nights accommodation per season so, tempting as the beach across the road might be, the clock ticks louder than the surf.

Janice deMooy, who manages the hostel, also acts as unofficial employment counselor, housing authority and overall American consulate for foreign workers. It’s hard to imagine anyone more suited for the job. I interviewed Janice during breakfast hour at the hostel. While we talked, she flipped pancakes on a huge griddle, juggled guests’ inquiries about good beaches, stripping beds, bike rental drop offs, where to locate more garbage bags… without losing an ounce of the good cheer and sass that suggest she’s still having a good time. And she’s been running the hostel for eight years.

In those eight years, Janice has gotten to know a number of the island employers and developed ways to work with them on behalf of her guests. Recently three women arrived to a full house, without a reservation; just as Janice was, oh-so- gently, dropping the bomb, the phone rang and it was the manager of a bed and breakfast putting in an order for three chambermaids. Huzzah! Two highly prized birds with one stone: a job that provided housing.

Several years ago Janice realized that Stop & Shop’s J-1s were unable to get beds for their critical first few nights because she’d taken group tourist bookings. She stopped doing that. She even struck a deal with Stop and Shop’s manager to open a week early to accommodate his J-1 arrivals. When this year’s harsh winter caused such damage that Janice couldn’t open early, the situation for Stop and Shop’s summer interns “got ugly,” said manager Ron Foti, declining further comment or elaboration.

As it happens many J-1s who arrive with, for example, a job at Stop and Shop, seek a secondary job, working for someone who provides housing. Hotels and B&Bs are good prospects, though the housing is generally not free. If you work at The White Elephant as a chambermaid, you can rent a shared room for $200 a week per occupant. Two hostel guests recently asked Janice to help them decide whether to accept The White Elephant offer or work for Hyannis’s Olive Garden restaurant where their room rental would be $80 a week. “Well, you took the ferry over here, and now you know how easy it is to get here when you want to…” she recalled telling them. They saw her point and decamped for Hyannis.

Stop and Shop is one of the island’s major employers, including employing many J-1 seasonal interns. Since 2013 when the plight of Stop & Shop’s foreign student workers became highly publicized, (They protested with placards outside the store and begged outside churches, their signs pleading for rooms to rent) Stop & Shop has made an effort to offer greater housing assistance to staff. But they have stopped short of constructing housing of their own. Instead they have assumed leases from the island’s ever dwindling rental inventory. Good news for Stop & Shop workers, but bad news for a painter I interviewed who will lose his rental cottage in September because Stop & Shop, which rents the main house, has now contracted the rental of his cottage. He’s lived and worked on the island for 4 years and shares the cottage with three other working islanders.

In Nantucket’s housing version of musical chairs, every time the clock stops on a lease, more and more residents are left standing.

When plans for Stop & Shop’s new store were reviewed by the HDC and the NHA, there was talk of including attic or basement housing in the plan, but area zoning restricts the height of buildings, which forced the store to choose between high barn-like ceilings or attic housing. They opted for high ceilings. And, to be fair and balanced—the town opted for maintaining their zoning codes. While members of the HDC tried to convince S&S to dig out a basement for housing, they declined.

So at one point Stop & Shop’s manager asked Janice if the store could lease the hostel for extended use. The answer was no. “But,” Janice offered, more than half seriously, “I’d gladly help run a seasonal workers encampment. Anyone want to build a tent town, sure, I’ll manage it!” From what I was able to observe, that was very good news for a town creative enough to engage her.

The “Star of the Sea” equivalent for year-round workers are illegal dorms, often created in basements and attics. These are the first ports of disembarkation for many seeking jobs or recently employed; with luck they are just launching pads for finding better housing. When Carlos, a painter and carpenter from El Salvador, arrived on Nantucket 15 years ago he spent 6 months sleeping in a basement with 15 other workers, all sharing one bathroom.  No kitchen. His rent was $125 a week per person. This was October 1999: $500 a month for a bed in a basement with 14 other people and one bathroom.

I asked Carlos whether he had shared sleeping space with his mother and sister at home in El Salvador, this precedent being a favorite conscience salver for some town officials. “Yes,” he said, but then quickly added, “That was one of the reasons why I left.” He thought about it more. “And besides, it was my sister and mother, not strangers---not me sleeping in a bed with my wife in the same room with people I don’t know.”

Now, fifteen years later, Carlos and his wife have a private room with a bath in a five bedroom house they share with seven other people and a child. He pays $1000 a month rent. While the kitchen and eating area are shared equally they are rarely shared. Carlos and his wife wait their turn to cook and then take their food to their rooms. A lone refrigerator is divided into sections for each renter. Carlos’s wife usually cooks for the week, to minimize the kitchen shuffle. She waits for a time when most inhabitants are out, hoping the sun will shine on a Sunday afternoon. She then divides the meal into easily microwaveable portions that stack into their refrigerator cubicle. Carlos’s accommodations aren’t what he would like, but they are the limit of what he can afford on the island.

When the Nantucket Historical Association decided they needed to add to their staff housing, they began with a plan to purchase a Huntington prefab two-family dwelling. Fortunately they already owned the land, a lot on Bartlett Road where the Association’s collection is warehoused. Very quickly they felt pressured to accommodate more staff, including individuals already renting on the island but insecure about their tenancy. The NHA was building a lifeboat in the roiling seas of Nantucket housing and staff members began scrambling on board. So the plan was modified; they would dig out a basement to accommodate two apartments, and one of the “family” units became a singles unit, a three-bedroom house share.

Michael Harrison (NHA’s chief curator) and his partner Matthew Kuhnert (architectural historian) recently moved into the new, aboveground family unit. They are both relatively new to the island, moving from Manhattan where, Matt explained, smiling, “housing is much cheaper and easy to find.” Michael added that the assurance of housing was, unofficially, a condition of his employment, the situation on Nantucket being as it is, fairly notorious.

While Michael and Matthew don’t share their house—it has a large open living room/kitchen plan, with bedrooms upstairs and an additional bathroom downstairs—they are now sharing the lot with more people than were involved in the original house plan. This should mean, Michael pointed out, paying more attention to how to landscape the exterior so that it can serve everyone’s needs, providing outdoor entertainment spaces and minimizing congestive traffic. (At the moment, there is no landscaping, just dirt.) Michael insisted that the ad hoc approach, that seemed to be underway when he arrived, wouldn’t work. The growing complexity of needs necessitates real planning. So now they have been working on a plan.

House shares and apartment shares are a financial necessity that very likely won’t be eradicated by the construction of more affordable housing, so the challenge is to find ways to improve sharing conditions.