Non-Profit Affordable Housing? | Guest Column

By David S. Gow

Executive Director, San Juan Community Home Trust

The housing market in San Juan County is broken. The geographic isolation that makes our archipelago highly prized for its quality of life, and as a tourist destination, also restricts the movement of people, goods, and capital. So while the internet, mail and parcel delivery link islanders to the outside retail economy, our separation from the mainland also acts as a deterrent to major financial deals that start businesses, create jobs, attract new workers, and stimulate construction of housing. The effect on the housing market includes high rents, and island houses with what seem to be big city price tags.

We all know someone who has had trouble finding affordable housing: young families who like the pace of small town life and good schools; young farmers and their interns needing arable land and a simple place to live; professionals and public servants forced to relocate, or cancel plans to move here despite receiving job offers; untold numbers of tenacious folks who somehow hold down multiple jobs, yet never gain ground on a rising cost of living.

In the face of such challenges, it is up to the community to craft smart solutions using the public and nonprofit sectors as tools. In the area of housing, two nonprofit corporations on San Juan Island have built distinctive enclave neighborhoods of affordable homes that have made real the dream of quality home ownership for hardworking people who were otherwise priced out of the real estate market.

Homes For Islanders, incorporated in 1998, uses a nation-wide model, fully funded by federal grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Self Help Program. By next spring they will have built nearly 100 homes in several neighborhoods. Think 1200-1500 hours of sweat equity, rain or shine, by each qualifying household, pounding nails with neighbors-to-be to raise each cluster of affordable homes. That is impressive. Lots are being purchased now in the Fox Hall neighborhood for the next project.

The San Juan Community Home Trust, created in 2001 on the nation-wide Community Land Trust model, builds houses subsidized by grants and donations, relying on affordability covenants to keep home prices below market rate—permanently. The Home Trust has completed 37 of these “forever affordable” homes in two neighborhoods within the town limits of Friday Harbor. The Home Trust owns or has access to land in the annexed Urban Growth Area south of town for up to 120 homes.

The Home Trust provides quality homes subsidized by foundation grants, government grants & loans, and individual donations. Resale prices are linked to local median income, and homes are available only to financially qualified residents (80 percent of median income) who have lived here at least three years. This is a program intent on passing on solid, well-maintained homes forever protected from speculation-driven inflation for the benefit of current owners, their children, future homebuyers and, most importantly, our island community.

While both organizations are achieving results, the Home Trust and Homes For Islanders both wrestle with the very high costs of construction here, relying on low-interest federal mortgages, and trying to employ energy efficient building practices — all while serving people with modest means with the patience and tenacity to complete the programs. But more needs to be done, and the Home Trust urges everyone who cares about affordable housing to get involved in the issue, for it will be the community that ultimately produces a solution to this crisis.