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Affordable housing solutions elsewhere—Creativity and communication is key

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This is the seventh in a series of articles looking at various aspects of affordable housing in Yellow Springs.

As the News winds down its series on affordable housing (next week’s article, on lessons learned from the Glass Farm controversy, will complete the series), it seems appropriate to look at other communities that have taken steps toward addressing a need for affordable housing. Those cited in this article are, like Yellow Springs, small communities that have in recent years seen a growing gap between rising housing prices and median income.

More than 20 years ago on Orcas Island near Seattle, three residents joined together in an effort to turn around what they saw as a disturbing local trend. Rapid growth on the island, especially of the construction of vacation homes, had sent housing prices skyrocketing. Soon the island boasted both the highest housing prices and the lowest median wages in the state of Washington.

The three islanders “were driven by their concern that the island’s mix of people with a wide range of incomes was being lost, and by their commitment to find a solution that would serve many generations,” according to the Web site of OPAL Community Land Trust. “Many wage earners couldn’t afford the rising rents, much less buy a home. Open space was disappearing, along with a certain feeling of community.”

Within a few years, the three islanders and several others formed OPAL (Of People and Land), a community land trust. Several years after that, the nonprofit completed its first group of 18 affordable homes. Now, more than 20 years later, the land trust has had a significant impact on the island, having constructed or rehabbed 84 homes in a community with 3,100 households for residents who have lived on the island at least three years, and are unable to afford a low-end market-priced home. OPAL now provides housing for 3 percent of the population, including 10 to 12 percent of the children who attend local schools.

Now established as a valuable contributor to the Orcas Island community, OPAL, which was the first community land trust in the West, began as a steep learning curve for its members, who needed to master such tasks as finding financing for its clients, building affordable yet energy efficient homes and securing sufficient resources to purchase land. The nonprofit has since constructed a variety of affordable housing options, including several communities of clustered single-family homes, rental apartments and several scattered-site rehabbed houses. It has done so with a mixture of private and public financing —currently, 14 percent of OPAL’s revenues come from private donations, 22 percent from state grants and 64 percent from OPAL homeowners’ mortgages.

OPAL has learned many lessons in the past two decades, according to Executive Director Lisa Byers in a recent phone interview. To other communities seeking to create affordable housing, Byers advised, “Stay small, do it well, don’t overreach. Focus on communicating a lot, and address criticisms directly. Go slowly and do it well.”

In its first years, some islanders opposed OPAL’s efforts, but that opposition has died down, according to Byers, who said that, given the nonprofit’s proven track record of successful efforts, “it’s not politically correct to criticize us anymore.”

While OPAL has benefitted mainly from state rather than municipal funding, Byers sees supporting affordable housing as a worthy endeavor for local governments.

“The housing system is broken, and doesn’t provide adequate housing. It’s an appropriate role for government to get involved,” she said. “It’s great news when a local community decides to invest in housing.”

On another island on the other side of the country, local governments have taken a leading role in shoring up the affordable housing stock. Like Orcas Island, Martha’s Vineyard in recent decades became a leading tourist destination and site for vacation homes, creating high housing costs that priced out the people needed to work in the island’s restaurants, hotels and schools.

Ten years ago, concerned local residents formed the Island Housing Trust, a community land trust organization that sought to create affordable housing. Initially, the group hired a consultant to perform a housing needs assessment to determine gaps in local needs, which verified the lack of housing for low and middle-income people. Since then, the nonprofit has constructed or rehabbed more than 40 affordable homes whose residents, mainly in their 30s, make between 60 and 120 percent of the median income.

“It’s something that has taken time and education over the last 10 years,” said IHT executive Director Philippe Jordi in a recent interview, regarding the community’s support for the project. “We’ve done a lot of public outreach.”

The organization chose the land trust model — in which homes remain affordable because the land beneath the home is owned by the land trust and leased to the homeowner — because organizers wanted the homes to be not just affordable initially, but over generations.

“It’s important to think about the long term,” Jordi said.

Unlike OPAL, the IHT does not benefit significantly from state funding. Rather, its main source of funds is municipal funding in the form of a 3 percent surcharge on local property tax, called the Community Preservation Act, earmarked for affordable housing. One by one, the island’s five towns — Tisbury, Aquinnah, Edgartown, West Tisbury and Oak Bluffs — voted to adopt the CPA, which has provided about $1.5 million for the IHT housing over the decade.

Private donations toward the effort have also been substantial, and a sister fundraising organization to IHT, the Island Affordable Housing Fund, has raised $2.4 million. The land trust has also received about $800,000 from state funds for energy efficient upgrades and solar electric systems.

While the public/private partnership has been critical for the effort’s success, that collaboration requires time and communication, Jordi said.

“It was a learning process,” he said of the partnership between the nonprofit and local governments. “It’s a process of developing trust.”

The IHT in recent years has also partnered with local conservation groups, in a strategy that upends the traditional competition between the interests of conserving land and developing affordable housing. The nonprofit and the conservation group purchase land together at a reduced price due to conservation easements, then build affordable housing on a portion that is not covered by easement.

While the Island Housing Trust and OPAL have now both benefitted from years of experience, a lack of experience may have worked to the advantage of three young people in Oberlin who recently opened an ambitious $15 million multi-use downtown development that includes green space, retail and commercial space, market-priced condominiums and 11 units of affordable housing. The project, called East College Street, opened its doors last year.

Their lack of experience enabled the trio, who began the development when they were recently graduated from Oberlin College, to plunge into a project whose many challenges might have given pause to more experienced developers. The project’s challenges included remediating a downtown brownfield (contaminated area), finding millions of dollars in funding sources, working with local government regulations and finding ways to build attractive and green housing.

“We didn’t know how difficult it would be, how many obstacles,” said Josh Rosen in a recent interview.

The project began 10 years ago when then-Oberlin senior Naomi Sabel hatched an idea about taking a downtown long-abandoned space — a brownfield that formerly housed a dry cleaner and gas station — and turning it into a place both attractive and useful. Rosen and Sabel and their friend Ben Eziya formed Sustainable Community Associates and embarked on the project.

“We just wanted to stay in the community and make positive change,” Rosen said.

Because they didn’t know they couldn’t do the project the way they wanted, the trio — who were collectively called “the kids” by local leaders — went right ahead and did it anyway. They wanted East College to be green, to be attractive, to be walkable, to be economically sustainable and to include affordable housing. The pricetag was high, ending up at $15 million, and there were setbacks and cost overruns. But the visionary aspect of the project ended up being its saving grace.

Rather than only seeking a venture that turns a profit, the young people were driven by values, according to the Sustainable Community Web site. They asked themselves the questions, What would really benefit the community? How do you plan a building that will still be useful in the future? Can we build something that will contribute to real progress in this country?

“In trying to answer these questions, we enlisted the partners that gain when development is done right,” the Web site states. “The result is an unconventional financing structure that took some patience to assemble, but ultimately let us build a project that developers simply seeking a profit would have overlooked.”

The financing package includes $1.4 million in tax increment financing from the City of Oberlin for infrastructure and utility upgrades; $13 million from the Kendada Fund, a Georgia foundation that purchased the affordable housing units in order to keep them permanently affordable as rentals; and $200,000 from a federal appropriations bill for green energy use. The local bank, Lorain National Bank, provided financing for construction and residential mortgages, and also supplements the project with New Markets Tax Credit, a Treasury Department program that incentivizes banks to invest in job creation in low income areas. The young people also partnered with US Bank, which buys the tax credits for its own use or packages them to sell to investors. Oberlin College also contributed by purchasing part of the building for studios and an art gallery.

“The financial structure was off the charts — federal grants, the first tax increment funding in the city, the streetscape, input from the college, New Market Tax Credits,” said Carmen Fiorilli, who headed the project’s construction. “There were so many nuances, but this project was supported by the whole community as an economic development engine for the city.”

The East College Street project opened its doors last year, and the affordable units quickly filled up with occupants, including teachers, retail workers and health care workers in the community.

The Sustainable Community Associates partners, having provided their community with a green, sustainable and affordable downtown living and working space, are now seeking new community development projects. And nobody calls the three young people “the kids” anymore.

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