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No place like an affordable home | As I See It
By Chary Caren
Special to the Journal
Recent ads in the Journal question the need for affordable housing on San Juan Island.
According to the Washington Center for Real Estate Research’s Housing Affordability Index, San Juan County continues to have by far the least affordable housing of any county in the state.
Did you know that enrollment in our public school system continues to drop? Families cannot afford to remain here. Over 40 percent of the children now enrolled in our local schools are eligible for free or reduced-rate lunches. These are children of the service people on whom we all depend: workers in local businesses, at the hospital, at our schools, and more.
Despite the apparent wealth of our island, we have a large and largely unacknowledged population of people living just above, at or below the poverty level. These are the people who need affordable home ownership and preserve a strong and diverse community on our island. We need to avoid having to bring in transient workers every day – as islands on the East Coast now must do.
There are two affordable housing programs on San Juan: Homes for Islanders (HFI) and the San Juan Community Home Trust (Home Trust). Both have accomplished a lot using very different approaches.
Homes for Islanders uses USDA grants to purchase land and operate their program. The homebuyers “group build,” with each person working 35 hours per week, contributing 65 percent of their home’s construction, usually requiring a year. The owner then has a USDA mortgage and can sell the house on the speculative real estate market. For first-time owners it may be a good investment if they can afford to put in the time on construction while also working to earn their required income.
Clearly this program doesn’t work for everyone in need of an affordable home, which is why HFI’s ads asking if there is still a need for affordable homes could confuse the public - especially supporters of affordable housing.
The Home Trust, for which I volunteer, designs and builds homes to completion. Land is purchased with a combination of grants and donations from supporters in our community. Homebuyers must have lived in San Juan County for two years, have income of no more than 80 percent of Area Median Income (AMI), have a stable earning history, acceptable credit and manageable debt.
A critical difference between the two programs comes at the time of resale. The sale price of Home Trust homes is determined by a formula. Home prices can only rise as fast as AMI, which keeps the home available to the same income group in the future. Thus, the homes are “permanently affordable”.
Government grants and subsidies are therefore recycled and passed forward to successive homeowners. Moreover, when homeowners wish to sell, the Home Trust assists new qualified buyers to obtain a mortgage. The home does not go onto the speculative market. Our own waiting list provides the next buyer with a well-cared for permanently affordable home.
Yes, we still need affordable housing programs on San Juan Island. I urge you to learn about both and volunteer your help.
— Editor’s note: Chary Caren is a member of SJ Community Home Trust board of directors.