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Affordable Housing: Lopez’s Community-Driven Solutions

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Submitted by San Juan County.

Leyna Lavinthal and her family of three are about to celebrate a major milestone – one year in secure, affordable housing. The Lavinthal family left Seattle behind and moved to Lopez Island in 2018 in search of a safe community to raise their son, Benji. But the first three years of island life proved challenging.

“We were totally naive to how difficult it is to find a rental here – and even when we were lucky enough to find a house, it didn’t always cover our basic necessities,” said Lavinthal as she recounted her first years on the island.

In just two years, the Lavinthals’ rent increased by 20% and the family often went without water.

“Our water was always going out and still our landlord dramatically increased our rent. It became unsustainable, but we were told that ‘that’s just the way it is in the islands’ — not getting basic needs met.”

More than 40% of Lopez residents (320 plus families) struggle to maintain decent, safe, and affordable places to live, according to Housing Lopez, a not-for-profit housing development organization.

That’s why the organization decided to build a community of six, two-bedroom, one-bathroom homes – each a modest 843 square feet near the heart of Lopez Village. Thanks to $600,000 from San Juan County and a discounted price on the land previously owned by the County’s Public Works department, the project broke ground in the spring of 2021 and was dubbed the ‘Fishbay Cottages.’

“We wouldn’t have been able to do this project without the County,” said John Taylor, the co-chair of Housing Lopez. “The REET funds we received were key to our ability to fund the project. Otherwise, we’d most likely still be raising money.”

San Juan County supported the project via the Home Fund – a real estate excise tax-funded program to develop and preserve affordable housing in San Juan County. Over the 12-year tax period approved by voters, the San Juan County Home Fund is projected to generate $15.2 million. In the program’s first four years, $932,835 has been spent on Lopez Island.

When construction wrapped in the fall of 2021, the Fishbay Cottages officially welcomed the first tenants – including the Lavinthal family.2

“It was kind of a lifesaver, to be honest – and I know my fellow neighbors feel the same way. It’s not the fact that it is affordable, as much as the fact that it’s secure. No one is going to sell this house from underneath me. That’s the biggest relief.”

The units are rented to locals with incomes between 50% and 80% of area median household income and work in essential services.

“We wanted our first project to support those who are essential to the viability of our community,” said Taylor. “We wanted to reach those working in healthcare, education, fire and rescue, and other central services who were having a difficult time finding affordable rentals.”

Housing Lopez already has its sights set on the next project – a 45-unit community in Lopez Village. The organization purchased nine acres in July 2022 and has developed a three-phase plan to build 15 units at a time over the coming years.

This project, dubbed “Lopez Village North,” received an initial commitment of $616,252 from the County’s Home Fund in the 2022 funding round to help offset land acquisition costs. Additionally, in partnership with the County, Housing Lopez applied for and was this month awarded a $400,000 Connecting Housing to Infrastructure grant from the Washington Department of Commerce to help pay for utility infrastructure for the project.

“As great of a project as the Fishbay Cottages is – and it is great and we’re proud of it – this is just the first of many,” said Taylor. “And we’re going to need the County’s help on every one of them.”

Seeking a Community-Driven Solution

Lopez Community Land Trust has been seeking community-driven solutions to the housing crisis since it was incorporated in 1989. Today, the organization has built an impressive resume, including six affordable housing neighborhoods, 47 cooperatively owned homes, and six rental units, among other accomplishments. But after 33 years in the business, the organization knows it’s not always a matter of quantity.

“We don’t have a shortage of housing. We have a shortage of availability,” said Sandy Bishop, who has served as the Executive Director of the Lopez Community Land Trust for 25 years.

The LCLT estimates that Lopez Island currently has one house for every 1.2 people living on Lopez. However, many of these homes have become short-term rentals, second homes, or are unaffordable to the average, local wage-earner. This shortage of availability leads to rampant housing instability or undesirable living circumstances.

“We build these new homes and think, ‘Great, we’ve just freed up ten other rentals!’ but come to find, that people were living in an unheated shack, couch surfing, or staying temporarily with family,” said Bishop. “For every ten houses we build, one decent rental opens up.”

Most recently, San Juan County helped fund the Land Trust’s Salish Way neighborhood – ten, single-family homes that house 18 islanders. Neighbors include park rangers, carpenters, small business owners, and educators. The last four homes were completed in 2021 and the community has since been recognized by the U.S. Department of Energy as 2021 Housing Innovation Award winner Salish Way III Exterior.

“So many of our housing issues are perfectly solvable with diverse and steady solutions,” said Bishop.

One of those steady solutions is the County’s Home Fund. LCLT received $232,000 in funding from the Home Fund to support the Salish Way III project’s construction costs including site work costs, building supplies, structurally insulated panels, and professional services fees.

“It’s a game changer and one of the strongest things the County has ever done,” said Bishop. “And I wish the voters would have approved it years ago. Had people been open to it, the islands would be a lot more equitable today in terms of housing.”

Up next for LCLT will be a project called Fisherman Bay Curve, a new six-unit homeownership project located just outside of Lopez Village. This project also received an initial funding commitment from the County’s Home fund in 2022 of $1,107,000. The Fisherman Bay Curve project is slated to begin construction next year.

To learn more about Housing Lopez, Lopez Community Land Trust and the Home Fund, please visit: www.sjchomefund.com.

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