On Winning the Affordable Housing Lottery, Chilmark, Massachusetts

mixed media on board 48.75 x 36 inches

‘Affordable Housing,’ by Chioke Morais, mixed media on board 48.75 x 36 inches

Owning your own home.

It isn’t something so strange, seeing that you are a married professional in your 40s. But here, on Martha’s Vineyard, and more specifically in Chilmark, where the (former) president took his family for vacation, you only own your own home if you are rich. Or come from a family with generations found in the graveyards with worn-down stones and children’s names.

Or if you’re lucky.

And the night of the Affordable Housing Lottery, you got lucky.

In the selectmen’s room of the Town Hall (where you sat just a year before to support the Chilmark bylaw banning homes larger than 6,000 square feet), luck pulled your number out of a bucket full of other numbers belonging to your just-as-hopeful friends, your neighbors, your children’s teachers.

And even though it is luck that gets your number pulled from the bucket, it didn’t have anything to do with how your number got there to begin with. It was the fact that you, thanks to your mother’s house that she built in the ’70s with its drafty floors and detached bedrooms, are a resident of Chilmark. And that your mother agreed to cosign on your loan because, even though you are a married professional in your 40s, even though you don’t have a rental bill, you still don’t have the type of debt-to-income ratio that can afford affordable housing in Chilmark.

Once your number is pulled, and your picture is taken, and you avoid the eyes of those friends who weren’t so lucky, it’s about how well you can hustle. How much you are willing to live without, you ask yourself. Do you really need finished floors? Windowsills? Grass?

It’s also about who you know. Can you barter and bargain with your friends who do construction, who dig septic tanks? Will they come down from their sky-high prices just for you? Will your friends who said they would come over and paint the walls when your number got pulled, really come?

Because even though this is an affordable home, the mortgage still requires that you put down cash. An amount that looks back at you from the banker’s email and makes you laugh and cry and yell out loud, “What part of that is affordable?”

So you sign your name on the line that reads “sweat equity,” and live off your summer teaching salary (and your mother), and you never see your husband (who is building your house), and still, it is not enough if you want tile in your bathroom. So you cater dinner parties in Edgartown and wander through $7 million homes, a tray of appetizers held aloft, and on breaks run your hands across their bathroom tiles, take pictures of their recessed lighting, laugh at their taste in kitchen appliances and their empty basements.

There is another Chilmark bylaw that says your new home cannot be an income-producing investment. You cannot sell it for more than it cost, you cannot rent it to those willing to pay $10,000 a month for it. It will not be worthy collateral for college loans for your three children, nor mean you can retire to Florida.

But you don’t worry about any of that.

All you know is that it will be a home of your own.

And you got lucky.

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