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Affordable housing: Is there hope?

With a third of Bainbridge homes on the market priced at over $1 million, the island is rapidly erecting an economic wall fewer home buyers can breach.

“We’re becoming a gated community of just the very wealthy,” said Del Miller, chair of the Bainbridge Island Housing Resources Board. “But there are many good, hard-working people that want to live here.

“We need to make room for them.”

Miller and a growing number of affordable housing advocates aim to make room and preserve it through a “community land trust.”

A popular method in the East Coast, CLTs offer homeownership for families with modest incomes in areas where residential properties have climbed higher than many can reach.

“CLTs are a wonderful strategy,” said Kat Gjovik, director of the Community Housing Coalition. “Over time, they’ve worked very well.

“Some have been in place for over 30 years, and there are more than a dozen already in Washington.”

Gjovik, Miller and others have formed a CLT work group to explore the possibility of such a venture on the island.

According to a memorandum drafted by the group, a CLT would put land in trust under the ownership of a nonprofit organization that would maintain the property for the benefit of its residents.

“The CLT is the trustee that owns and manages the assets and has a fiduciary duty to put the interests of the beneficiaries of the trust ahead of its own interests,” the memorandum states.

Unlike other cooperative housing agreements or city-mandated building rules, “CLTs can preserve affordability permanently – beyond the first or second occupant,” according to the memorandum. A CLT might own a parcel of land but sell the homes under certain guidelines or rent properties at low prices.

As a nonprofit, CLTs can draw from a range of funding sources, including private grants and government loans, to purchase and maintain properties.

As a local example of a similar trust, Gjovik points to the Trust for Working Landscapes, which specializes in the preservation of island farmlands.

“But there are many examples of CLTs close by,” said Gjovik, who has studied the original CLT in Burlington, Vt., and nearby efforts in Seattle, Bellingham and Puget Sound island communities.

The Lummi Island CLT, established in 1998, built nine single-family homes on a 5-acre property last year and has preserved historic buildings for community use.

The 17-year-old Opal CLT on Orcas Island houses 63 families, which amounts to about 2 percent of the island’s population.

Opal’s efforts have helped Orcas hold close many senior residents and families who might have been priced off the island. According to Opal’s website, its residents lived on Orcas Island an average of 16 years before joining the CLT.

The CLT’s families have a total of 70 children, or about 15 percent of the Orcas public school population.

Up, up, up

Like these communities, Bainbridge has seen a sharp rise in housing prices while seniors, working families and recent high school graduates struggle to find a foothold. The need for a Bainbridge CLT rises parallel to the increasing residential rates, Gjovik said.

“I just heard about a senior who is paying 50 percent of her income on rent,” she said. “We can’t keep young people around after high school or college and the middle class is going away.”

According to Gjovik, The median price on the 94 homes for sale last month nearly topped $880,000. The lowest priced home, at $305,000, was beyond the budget of many working professionals.

“Some are calling this a crisis – a crisis in affordable housing, and I’m one of them,” said Gjovik.

The Bainbridge CLT working group is hoping to spark wider interest in establishing a local CLT.

“We want to see if there’s enough motivated citizens who want to form an enterprise, a private nonprofit maybe with local government behind them,” said Miller. “We want to see what can be done here. We’re here to educate people and see if there’s any interest in it. The issue really is, who do we want our island to consist of? Is there really value in having a diversity of people here?”

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