By Mara Certic
While life on the East End seems to cost more with each passing day, some of those dedicated to providing safe, affordable housing for those in need are also trying to promote other ways to lead safe, happy and affordable lives in one of the most expensive places in the country.
Tucked behind Three Mile Road in East Hampton, almost hidden from the outside world, Whalebone Village Apartments provides affordable housing for 27 single mothers and their children, providing accommodation at a fixed rate of 30 percent of income.
Gerry Mooney, manager of the housing project, continues to advocate for more affordable housing in East Hampton Town; most recently he has supported a project proposed for Wainscott that has drawn opposition from the local school district.
In addition to trying to find more locations for affordable housing, Mr. Mooney and his team are also busy creating the programming at Whalebone that will continue to further learning, encourage affordable living and level the playing field.
One of the programs in question has been in place at Whalebone for several years, thanks to a small grant from a man named David Wilson, who learned about the project from a friend involved. After visiting the 46-unit complex, Mr. Wilson endowed a grant for a tutoring program, which not only meets four times a week, but also takes kids on annual field trips.
Earlier this year, a large group from Whalebone went on a trip to Washington, D.C., where kids and their mothers got to see different museums, monuments and even stay in a hotel—which was a first for many.
“For a lot of the folks at Whalebone, education isn’t a top priority,” Mr. Mooney said in one of the apartments last month. “I would say that education can kind of scare them.” He added that through the tutoring program, parents in Whalebone have support when it comes to helping their children with homework. Not only will the tutors help the kids with their lessons, they’ll accompany parents to teacher conferences and ensure there are free and open lines of communication.
Just this year, Whalebone Village Apartments connected with East Hampton’s Food Pantry farm, and have now receives weekly deliveries of produce, available for all to take. Ella Engel-Snow, who works at Whalebone, learned about the project when she was younger because her best friend was living there with her mother and sister.
“There are a lot of people who are very open, but maybe have a misconception of what affordable housing is. As you can see this is a really lovely place and we’re trying to do good things here,” Ms. Engel-Snow said.
“We have to realize that having the American dream, is having a place to call your own, it’s not necessarily owning a house,” Mr. Mooney added.
Right now, when funding becomes available, the occasional event is organized in the community room at the Whalebone Village Apartments. An art therapist donated her time to work with some of the women recently, which Mr. Mooney said was a very popular and helpful program.
“A lot of what we try to do is just open up their eyes to this broader, bigger world out there and to give them the opportunity to try things they might like,” Mr. Mooney said. That, along with a desire to break down the stigma of affordable housing, is where the idea for a new program has come from.
“So many people have a skill, but if you’ve never taken lessons you won’t know,” he said, “And people get trapped in their own crowds. No matter how much we deny it, we all feel most comfortable with our own crowd,” he said.
The new program, which they are still putting together, would revolve around sharing skills with other members of the community. Instead of a lecture series based on specific topics, the program would look to share the skills of whole community. A yoga teacher could come in and teach a class, but equally someone from Whalebone could teach a cooking class, or a carpenter could come in to teach some handy tips for do-it-yourselfers. The key is that the classes would be open to all, and theoretically could be taught by all.
“This is something we have to do after the summer, but we’re hoping it will be this year,” said Ms. Engel-Snow.
“Part of the idea, as Gerry said, is really opening things up and providing more,” she added. “But it’s also about bringing people in from outside the Whalebone community and creating mutuality, because everyone has some sort of skill they know.”
“And when we have a party here,” Mr. Mooney said, “Everybody dances.”