A quarter century ago, an elderly woman lived in an unwinterized house on Lambert's Cove Road with no running water and no car. Every day, she walked into town for water. In the Camp Ground in Oak Bluffs, many seniors confined themselves to one room in the winter because their uninsulated homes were too expensive to heat. Countless more Island elders were doing the Vineyard shuffle along with the young people, moving twice a year between summer and winter rentals.
Despite the many resources offered by the councils on aging and Elder Services, such as meals, home care, case work and activities, when Island Elderly Housing Inc. was founded nearly three decades ago, the reality was that low-income seniors were unable to maintain or afford their homes.
"Nobody was really talking about it," said Carol Lashnits, who has served as executive director of Island Elderly Housing since its inception in 1977. A survey showed that a staggering number of seniors would move into subsidized housing projects if such an option were available.
After 30 years, some generous land donations and millions of dollars in federal grant money, Island Elderly Housing has matched the Island's need for subsidized elderly housing. Next week three new buildings open: Aidylberg I, Aidylberg II and Hillside Village III.
The buildings have a sum of 15 one-bedroom apartments, bringing Island Elderly Housing's total to 165 high-efficiency apartments - dramatic growth since the first project opened in 1981, with 40 apartments in Hillside Village.
"We never in a million years thought we'd be this big," said Ms. Lashnits, who was also a founder of the group that embarks on its 30th year on Nov. 10. "I went back to my 1977 annual report to the all-Island board of selectmen, and we've done everything that we wanted to do," she added.
The opening celebration will be on Monday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Aidylberg I and II, located at 38 Wing Road in Oak Bluffs. The public will be able to walk around the campus and go inside the buildings, whose gambrel roofs make them look barn-like, although with five apartments inside each one, they are more long than they are tall.
The event also celebrates one of the namesakes of Aidylberg - Marguerite A. Bergstrom, who donated her 2.3-acre Wing Road property in 2002, less than a year before her death at the age of 81. Ms. Bergstrom was a founding member of Island Elderly Housing and served as board president from 1982 until her death. She was also a war veteran, a retired nurse and hospital administrator and a prominent church leader.
When Ms. Bergstrom donated her $1 million property to Island Elderly Housing, she named the future project after the bed and breakfast she and her partner Lydia Palmer ran in the 1970s. The original Aidylberg was on Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road in Vineyard Haven. The couple named the inn after a combination of Ms. Palmer's name spelled backward and Ms. Bergstrom's nickname, Bergie.
The bed and breakfast housed and fed young summer workers for as little as $10 a week. Ms. Bergstrom jokingly called it the first affordable housing on the Island. They bought the building - now the Hanover House - after the state closed what was then the Vineyard Haven Nursing Home at that location. Ms. Bergstrom had been working there for just six months.
Ms. Bergstrom was the executive secretary to the Tisbury selectmen when she met Ms. Lashnits, who was a young assistant to the Tisbury planning board. Along with the late Margaret Love of Vineyard Haven, the trio - spanning three generations - founded Island Elderly Housing.
Over the years, the group has provided affordable housing for hundreds of seniors. Presently, there are 172 tenants. Hillside Village III is a new addition to Hillside Village in Vineyard Haven, which has a total of 55 apartments. Hillside Village I also houses low-income people who are disabled.
Island Elderly Housing also has six buildings containing 95 apartments in Woodside Village in Oak Bluffs, behind Community Services, as well as five apartments in the Love House on Main street in Vineyard Haven. The Love House was Ms. Love's century-old Victorian house, which she donated to the group in 1987.
"We don't have any other projects in the pipeline right now," Ms. Lashnits said - an uncommon statement from the driven director. "We're getting a well-deserved rest for a few years - until something else comes up." With the addition of the new buildings, nearly all of the low-income elderly people who had been on waiting lists have been offered housing.
"This is a really good time for people to apply," Ms. Lashnits said. "Some people who applied two weeks ago are actually getting considered right now."
Islanders over 62 years old with very low income are eligible for the apartments. Very low income is presently $25,100 per year for one person or $28,700 for two people, although it changes every year, so Ms. Lashnits tells people who are just over the cutoff to check back periodically.
"I remember when it was $12,000," Ms. Lashnits said. Residents pay 30 per cent of their monthly income for the apartments, which include utilities. This amounts to $250 to $300 on average, with the balance paid by federal rental assistance subsidies.
Although Island Elderly Housing won't be starting any new building projects in the immediate future, the group still has its hands full, between managing the staff, buildings, paperwork and programming. The government requires each housing project to be set up as a separate nonprofit corporation with a separate budget - and each corporation has five or six bank accounts.
"Twelve annual reports, twelve audits, twelve of everything," Ms. Lashnits said. "There's a lot of paperwork that goes along with that." Lately, the group has had some trouble keeping its staff.
"We can't pay them enough from the money we get from the government to retain our staff as long as we'd like to," Ms. Lashnits said. "It's the same problem everyone else has," she added.
Island Elderly Services also runs a meal program and a transportation service for its residents, which costs about $50,000 per year. Three nights a week, dinner is served at one of the housing locations - a social event for both elderly and disabled residents. The van service helps residents be independent, so they can live on their own longer.
"These people were not at peace - and how could they be?" Ms. Lashnits said. "They didn't have enough money to live and it was a terrible existence." But the dedication of a group of people changed that.
"People have said it's transformed their lives," she said. "It's taken away a lot of stress."