Are we ready for affordable housing?

Ah, the land of plenty. It had to come to this. America’s class system has been around for centuries, but the division became more obvious in the 19th century with the creation of opulent resorts, first in the east with the likes of Saratoga Springs, Palm Beach and Newport, then slowly moving west to Aspen, Jackson Hole and Carmel. What all of them had in common were beautiful settings and a work force that could not afford to live there. These days, we have a modest variation of the theme spreading in certain neighborhoods throughout the country, including Bainbridge Island, where an increasing number of the city’s workers live west of Agate Pass.

It’s an age-old dilemma, of course, but there are several strange twists going on here. Try this one: people worked bone hard in Seattle or elsewhere so they could retire to island comfort, while others now toil on Bainbridge so they can afford to live elsewhere. What will we do if some day the drawbridge goes up, or the gate closes tight? How will all these people feed themselves? Humor aside, many progressive thinkers believe affordable housing is the answer. Perhaps, but is it too late?

No, says the local Housing Resources Board, which, through its formation of a Community Land Trust and the donation last year of 5.6 acres on Ferncliff Avenue, believes islanders are ready to support the idea of community ownership. During the next few years, the group wants to build 30 modest-income homes (3 bedrooms, 1,200 square feet) for people who either live or work (or both) on the island. To qualify, buyers would have to make less than the county median income, which today is $55,900 annually for a family of four.

The snag? Buyers would be acquiring only the house because the land would remain in the trust’s possession in perpetuity. The new homeowners also would have to agree to a resale restriction that would limit equity. At a 1.5 appreciation rate (the rate HRB uses for its four Vineyard Lane properties) a $200,000 house would appreciate $3,000 a year, producing $30,000 in equity over 10 years if that’s when the buyer decided to sell. Not as much as most people want, perhaps, but better than nothing.

The land trust would serve as the developer, hiring the architects and contractors. It also would go after the necessary sources of subsidized funding — local, state and federal — and would even assist the prospective new owners in finding reliable lenders. Wisely, it would market the project, too. Land trusts are proliferating across the country and Washington now has 15 of them, but community support is still the most critical factor in convincing the grantors of grants to let the dollars flow. Plus, donations are always welcome.

Because of that, HRB is asking community members to donate whatever they can afford to the project between now and July 1. The donor of the Ferncliff land is committed and the land transfer is in process, said Carl Florea, director of the HRB. It’s a done deal, he said. But the donor has “requested a challenge” to community members in order to gauge the amount of interest and commitment they have toward a diverse population. Put up or shut up? Yes, $100,000 worth. Florea said $13,000 has already been donated.

It’s an interesting approach, especially when considering the value and location of the property, which is undeveloped and sits right outside of the entrance to Wing Point. It’s worth millions, but the owner obviously believes in philanthropy and a healthy community.

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