Land trust, HRB combine environment, affordable housing

Two years ago, when Housing Resources Bainbridge and the Bainbridge Island Land Trust co-wrote an article that explored our interest in one another’s work and our still-nascent partnership, a supporter of both wrote to thank us. The partnership, she said, “presents a stronger response,” eliminating “the need to choose.” She is not alone. We are heartened by the number of islanders supporting both organizations, a testament to an increasingly sophisticated understanding of our community’s need for affordable housing and environmental protection.

Earlier this year, HRB and the land trust announced a joint project that will combine the two interests. The trust acquired three contiguous 5-acre parcels of undeveloped land along Lovgreen Road near Highway 305. It evaluates all potential acquisitions using a conservation values index that identifies areas with the highest ecological attributes, such as healthy habitat, the presence of wetlands or importance as a wildlife corridor, and directs its resources to purchase and restore land with the greatest value. The Lovgreen property was notable for its relatively intact forest within a larger band of connected forested habitat. But the property stood out for another reason. A portion of one parcel demonstrated signs of recent human activity with younger vegetation and invasive species—presenting an opportunity for partnership with HRB.

The trust will sell this small section to HRB, and in a few years HRB will develop a cluster of small single-family homes consistent with existing zoning and affordable housing policy. Like any other HRB development, the homes will be affordable to low-income households as defined by Housing and Urban Develoment, and they will be kept permanently affordable to eligible households through price regulation and income qualification. Permanent affordability is arguably the most sustainable use of land for housing. Without those restrictions, affordable homes become market rate at the first resale, requiring that we devote more land to replace them.

Our partnership originates in the awareness that both organizations are working to create a more sustainable and resilient community—a multifaceted undertaking that demands diverse expertise and engagement. When we care about our whole community, we look beyond the laser focus of our missions. We’ve come a long way from when our missions were pitted against one another.

Had the land trust not made this purchase, under current zoning as many as six large houses and six accessory dwelling units could have been built on lots dispersed across all 15 acres. The building footprints, driveways, parking areas, septic fields and landscaping—extending from Lovgreen to the Meadowmeer community—would have fragmented the habitat, and no interior forest wildlife refugia would remain.

Instead, the affordable homes, which our community urgently needs, will be concentrated in one small area. This strategic land use has become best practice and is shaping communities nationwide.

Between now and 2050, Puget Sound is projected to grow by about 1.8 million people, placing tremendous pressure on environmental resources and escalating already high home prices. To ensure that growth is equitable and sustainable, and for it to spare our natural lands, we need high-quality and intentional infrastructure.

Affordable housing is a critical element in that infrastructure. It is a public good and should be invested in accordingly. It welcomes a diversity of people with skills and perspectives to contribute to our community, benefiting all regardless of where and how they live. A healthy community also requires green infrastructure—a network of habitats and conserved spaces that support native species, provide clean air and water, and build resiliency in a changing climate. This partnership helps meet the need for both types of infrastructure.

As land trusts, our organizations share many of the same values and methods. HRB conserves land for permanently affordable housing. The land trust conserves land to safeguard the natural environment in perpetuity. And we both value land as a vital resource for the good of our community.

Cullen Brady is executive director of the BI Land Trust and Phedra Elliott is executive director of HRB.