Affordable housing allows good people to stay on the North Shore

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By Denise Frame Harlan

My husband Scott and I were living a charmed life, the spring I turned 34. We lived in the servants’ quarters of The Sargent House, a peeling gray museum in the heart of the historic district of Gloucester, Massachusetts. I needed one more year to complete grad Denise Harlan photoschool. Scott had just begun teaching at Landmark Middle School, and he was thrilled to do meaningful work. With free rent, in exchange for tour-guiding and household services, we were paying off our educations and our car, and we were managing our lives pretty well. I had worked as a college residence director for many years. We had run conference centers and served as live-in help. I had only paid 18 months of rent in my adult life, and I wanted to keep that number. Within a month of a positive pregnancy test, the museum announced a major renovation project—including the scraping of lead paint. We would need to leave immediately for the safety of the baby.

I clipped 40 classified ads over the next month, and taped them to a yellow legal pad. Each apartment I visited seemed worse than the last.

The curator of the museum suggested an affordable housing neighborhood called Haven Terrace. Scott and I walked up the staircase to find gorgeous views of Gloucester Harbor from light, airy condos. We chose a two-bedroom, 650 square feet in a smart design, at the cost of $49,000, and we moved in on our sixth wedding anniversary. As new neighbors, we all laid brick patios and power-washed the outdoor staircases—we all painted and weeded and grilled out when the landscape truck delivered mulch. By Christmas, our baby arrived and we truly settled in with our neighbors from Sierra Leone, Ireland, Costa Rica and Vietnam. If we had wondered what kind of people live in affordable housing, now we knew: we were teachers and school janitors and college professors, activists and social workers and single parents, veterans and musicians and restaurant owners.

Haven Terrace home drawn by one of Harlan’s children.

On Snow Days at Haven Terrace, our Parking Czar would phone, announcing the arrival of the snowplow, and every car would need to be cleared, moved, shuttled to another lot like those little games with plastic squares that shift, one car at a time. As the massive effort continued through the morning, I’d call around to organize vats of hot soup and quantities of coffee. All the neighbors would bring good food to share for a giant potluck feast after the parking lot was restored to order. The children would sled down Haven Terrace, with adults lining the sides of the road to keep everyone safe. It seemed like a miracle, on snow days, like the small town where I grew up.

Affordable housing allows good people to stay on the North Shore.

I do know Scott could not have stayed at Landmark without affordable housing. I could not have cared for our children, without affordable housing. I finished a graduate degree while we lived in affordable housing. We stayed on Haven Terrace for 13 years. By the time we left Haven Terrace, our condo had nearly doubled in value.

We recently purchased a home in Ipswich, and Scott is finishing year 20 at Landmark, the premiere school for students with language-based learning disabilities. I am completing my seventh year as an adjunct professor and writer. Without affordable housing, we would have taken our gifts to a cheaper part of the country. Because of affordable housing, we could stay on the North Shore, in jobs we cherish.

Our housing debt –for this home, on the marsh–is crushing for one full-time educator and one part-time educator, but we are still here. I would like to say we are scraping by, but we will be struggling as long as we live on the North Shore. We would be much worse off without that “leg up” offered by organizations like Harborlight. We are so thankful for those years on Haven Terrace, where our family could take root and thrive.

I would not have foreseen this life from the charmed age of 34, from our perch in the museum house. The teenagers are growing into adults, and we love our work. Haven Terrace shaped us, all of us. Many thanks to our former neighbors who continue to live there. Aren’t you glad to be there? We grew too big for the space we had chosen, but we think of you often.

Especially on snow days.

About our Guest Blogger

Denise Frame Harlan writes from the edge of The Great Marsh, where she lives with Scott and two kids who are no longer kids. Denise holds an MFA in creative writing from Seattle Pacific University. She teaches first-year writing and coaches teens through the college application essay. You can find links to her work at deniseframeharlan.com.