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Martha’s Vineyard was portrayed as rich, white, and elite, but there’s another side to the island

Alvia Wilson picked up her daughter Lanieca from Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. “I am an immigrant. I work hard. I’ve never been arrested. I became a citizen. I never looked for handouts. But I need help.”Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

EDGARTOWN — Alvia Wilson has heard the carping from some TV talking heads and politicians since Florida Governor Ron DeSantis flew 48 migrants to Martha’s Vineyard recently: Her island home is being pilloried as an exclusionary haven for the white, rich, and elite.

That’s not the Vineyard Wilson knows.

A 36-year-old mother of three who works for Martha’s Vineyard Bank, she sees the island not through the prism of the celebrities — former US presidents, actors, and business titans among them — who sweep in during the summer and ensconce themselves in oceanfront estates, largely insulated from the day-trippers who stroll off the ferries, not to mention the regular island folk.


Fishing shacks and boats lined a waterway in Menemsha Basin in Chilmark.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

Wilson resides in the other Vineyard, where many of the 20,000 year-round residents struggle to make ends meet, housing is desperately scarce and increasingly unaffordable, and the growing number of immigrants is rapidly diversifying the population.

She and her husband, a landscaper, made the difficult decision to split up their family to live with relatives and others after the landlord increased the rent on their three-bedroom home to $2,600 a month. Credit-card bills aren’t being paid, Wilson’s phone was disconnected, and she is worried that her car will be repossessed.

“I’ve lived on the island for the majority of my life, and this is the worst I’ve seen it,” said Wilson, a US citizen and native of Jamaica who is staying in Falmouth while she seeks housing on the island. “I am an immigrant. I work hard. I’ve never been arrested. I became a citizen. I never looked for handouts. But I need help.”

Alvia WIlson stood outside the hotel she is staying at in Falmouth while waiting to transition to affordable housing on Martha’s Vineyard which won’t be available until Oct. 1st. Barry Chin/Globe Staff

The ploy by DeSantis, a Republican who might run for president, brought national attention to the island, where residents rushed to aid the 48 migrants, many of whom said they had been lured aboard chartered flights in Texas with false promises of jobs and housing in Massachusetts.


Beyond the spotlight, many islanders bristled at the suggestion — circulated in conservative media — that they had quickly turned their backs on the migrants, mostly Venezuelans, who arrived unannounced Sept. 14 and were transferred to temporary housing on Cape Cod two days later. The opposite occurred; locals immediately mobilized to help.

“I was frustrated because a lot of people were saying things that weren’t true, that we’re just white, rich people here and have no diversity. People don’t see our struggles,” said Maura Morrison, case manager for Harbor Homes of Martha’s Vineyard, an umbrella organization for the island’s homeless prevention programs.

It’s a struggle that Morrison, a single mother with two children, can relate to personally: She cannot afford to buy a home on the island where she was born and raised. Although the Vineyard’s population grew by 24 percent from 2010 to 2020, its housing stock increased by only 2 percent.

In addition, the Vineyard’s average weekly wage of $1,094 in 2020 was 70 percent of the state average, and its median home price — now approaching $1.3 million — was more than double the state’s, according to an assessment of the island’s housing needs.

“We have people living in the woods who call me all the time looking for shelter,” said Morrison, who also serves as the Dukes County homeless prevention coordinator.

Exacerbating the problem has been an increase in summer rentals listed on websites such as AirBnb, housing advocates said. These transactions have been lucrative enough to prompt some homeowners to take their properties off the market during the colder months, further shrinking the pool of available rentals.


And as the wealth gap widens on the Vineyard, racial and ethnic diversity also is increasing.

Nearly a quarter of the year-round population is now multiracial, according to the latest census.

The island’s year-round Black population also increased during that time, jumping 67 percent to 798 people in 2020 from 477 people in 2010, nearly three times the growth rate of white residents. And in the summer, when the island’s population can soar to 200,000, throngs of Black families continue to vacation here, as they have for decades.

The Vineyard’s schools also are a barometer of change.

The number of public school students receiving help with English has more than doubled since 2016, to 472 students in 2021 from 210 six years ago, according to information provided by Dukes County manager Martina Thornton. A total of 94 percent of those pupils hear Portuguese in the home, a reflection of the island’s burgeoning Brazilian community.

Morrison was startled by the changes she saw three years ago when she returned to live on the Vineyard.

“When I was in school, I could count on my hand about five African Americans and a small handful of Brazilians in the whole high school,” Morrison said.

The growing diversity reflects a much different Vineyard than the image concocted by some on the national stage. Fox News host Tucker Carlson, for example, issued this sarcastic tweet after the migrants’ arrival:


“For hundreds of years, Martha’s Vineyard has suffered from the soul-crushing effects of its own whiteness. Island residents understood there was only one cure. They badly needed diversity. Relief finally arrived from an unlikely source yesterday: Ron DeSantis.”

In another example, a plane circled the island Monday towing a banner that read: “Vineyard Hypocrites,” an apparent reference to the migrants’ transfer from Edgartown to Joint Base Cape Cod, where more humanitarian resources and shelter were available.

Sue Diverio, executive director of Harbor Homes, said that she, like Morrison, feels the crunch of Vineyard living.

“I make a good salary, but I can’t afford to buy a home here,” said Diverio, who is paying rent to share a home with another woman. “And if you can find something year-round, that’s amazing.”

One of Diverio’s clients, a former model named Suzanne, said she lived in her car for three weeks, once was placed in protective custody by island police, and is working to regain her footing at Harbor Homes’ transitional housing for women.

Sue Diverio, exec director of Harbor Homes in Oak Bluffs (left) and Suzanne Lindsay a former model who is having to live in transitional housing at Harbor Homes. Barry Chin/Globe Staff

The housing crisis “stultified me. I couldn’t imagine that there could be this many homeless,” Suzanne said. “Even if you had the money, you couldn’t find a place unless you knew somebody.”

Diverio and Morrison praised the island’s response to the migrants’ arrival.

“Everybody jumped on board. Everyone was called to action. People donated, resources were given, and there were no issues,” Morrison said.


To Esther Reid, 55, a native of Jamaica who works as a waitress, the migrants’ reception mirrored her experience over 22 years on the island.

“Oh God, it’s always been very welcoming,” said Reid, who is from Oak Bluffs. “They’re very helpful on this island.”

For the Rev. Vincent “Chip” Seadale, rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Edgartown, the response was “a thing of wondrous beauty.”

The migrants were sheltered at the small church for two nights while an outpouring of aid — food, clothing, and offers of medical help — prompted police to request that no more donations be brought to the site.

“The islanders all understood we have a role to play in supporting each other,” Seadale said. “They knew what to do right away. We used all the experience we’ve gained over many years.”

“A lot of that has to do with the island mentality,” the rector added. “We can’t get off-island to get many of the things that the rest of America takes for granted. We have to do it ourselves.”

For Seadale, the perception that “we’re all rich, we’re all liberal” on the Vineyard is baffling. In reality, he added, “no one is all anything.”

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at