Dedicated Volunteers and Staff Turn an Innovative Concept into a Lasting Legacy of Affordable Homes
From a small group of idealistic volunteers with a vision of sustaining a healthy community on Orcas Island, OPAL Community Land Trust has grown into a thriving island resource. Overcoming fundraising obstacles and regulatory roadblocks, and persevering through several “near-death experiences,” as one founder called them, the organization today is responsible for housing 135 Orcas families.
OPAL projects range from clustered homes in small neighborhoods to scattered individual properties, an apartment complex, and a small apartment/office development. Whole neighborhoods have been built from scratch, existing older homes have been renovated and sometimes moved, and modular, factory-built homes have been used to offset rising construction costs.
Since 1989 OPAL has acquired in-depth experience in developing different types of affordable housing, successfully adapted to the island’s needs and changing economic climate, and masterfully managed the challenges of each new project.
A Scrappy Beginning and Steep Learning Curve
OPAL’s birth story begins with three dedicated volunteers (the organization had no paid staff for two years), who attracted others to their vision and persevered through a steep learning curve: how to start and run a new kind of nonprofit, how and where to raise money, how to acquire land and build an affordable, sustainable community.
What inspired them to keep going? They 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.
The need came from Orcas’ rapid growth in the 1970s and ’80s. The price of land and housing soared. Many wage earners could not afford the rising rents, much less buy a home. Open space was disappearing, along with a certain feeling of community.
One of the First Community Land Trusts in the West
After researching alternatives, the founders chose the community land trust model, then virtually unknown west of the Mississippi, but with a 15-year track record on the East Coast. In their large vision, a CLT could provide not only perpetually affordable homes but also workplaces for working islanders, thereby supporting the economic diversity of the island. Ideally, it would bring people together in vibrant, cooperatively governed ventures, allowing future leaseholders to help plan projects and design their dwellings. Leaseholders would also be involved in the long-term stewardship of the land, through nonprofit governance. The founders also sought to protect at least some land against the pressure of the speculative real estate market.
The first public gathering occurred in July 1988. After months of meetings and committee work, OPAL (Of People and Land) Community Land Trust was officially born as a nonprofit corporation in May 1989.
Breakthrough: Mortgage Funding from the USDA
Three years of crisis and triumph followed. The organization weathered internal disagreements about such issues as what population OPAL should serve, what values could or could not be sacrificed in order to get support from government agencies, and what land to buy. But the overriding struggle was to find financing.
It took almost a year to obtain the first grant, $300,000 from the Washington State Housing Trust Fund, in April 1990. Soon after, OPAL received an $80,000 federal Community Development Block Grant and the offer of a seven-acre piece of land near Eastsound at a reduced price. These were major achievements, but the organization nearly foundered on the problem of affordable mortgages for OPAL’s prospective homeowners – hard-working, capable people who were creditworthy, but couldn’t earn enough in the local economy to qualify for traditional housing loans (then at 7.5%). They needed interest rates of 3% or less.
Finally, one of the advisors helping the founders suggested using the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmer’s Home Loan Program, which offered interest rates as low as 1% to model housing projects. OPAL’s hardy volunteers soon decided on innovations that would make their first venture, Opal Commons, a demonstration project; wrote the complex grant application; and waited. When the application was accepted and all the funding finally secured in January 1993, OPAL became the first community land trust in the nation to be funded by Farmer’s Home, and all subsequent projects have depended on USDA support.
First Executive Director and First Project:
18 Homes on Seven Acres
Meanwhile, after two years of all-volunteer labor, in 1991 OPAL had hired its first executive director/project manager, and a local architect had been drawing up plans for the first neighborhood. Working closely with future residents on site planning and house design, the architect was determined to avoid the small-lot-subdivision type of low-income housing. OPAL also sought and incorporated feedback from neighbors.
Everyone had to make compromises to meet the requirements and restrictions of the funding agencies, and to keep the houses affordable despite high local building costs. After a year and a half of site work and construction – and five years after OPAL’s founding – in May 1995 all 18 Opal Commons households had moved in.
Opal Commons’ Success Repeated in Bonnie Brae
Spurred by the first project’s success and the continuing need for affordable housing, OPAL was already looking toward creating a second neighborhood. More grant writing brought another Community Block Grant in early 1995, $490,000 to purchase property and complete predevelopment plans. A 20-acre parcel with suitable zoning was found not far from Opal Commons, but the asking price was much higher than the appraisal. Not until a six-month search revealed no other property that could provide as much housing for the cost did the board agree to commit public funds for the higher price.
The name Bonnie Brae, which means “beautiful slope,” came from the name given to the property in the early 1900s when the house at the foot of the slope served as a birthing center and retreat spa. (This part of the property later was developed as the Reddick apartments and offices; see below.)
The financial and construction hurdles for Bonnie Brae proved to be greater than ever. Both the first architect and the first project manager had to be replaced; the one and only construction bid – from the same company that built Opal Commons – came in way over budget; and federal guidelines for mortgage financing changed. OPAL’s third (and current) executive director, hired in late 1995, in the end had to secure loans and grants from seven different sources.
Construction had to proceed in three phases, so that mortgages on the first phase could finance the next, and so on. Despite these difficulties and delays, the first residents moved into their new homes in December 1998, and the last homeowners moved in seven months later. As in the first project, the 24 two-story homes are clustered – in this case on just four acres of the property.
(For a more detailed look at these first two projects, see Of People and Land: Telling Our Stories, Building Homes, Creating Community on our Publications page.)
Land-Use Debate and Water Membership Moratorium Stall Progress
In 1999 San Juan County adopted its new Comprehensive Plan. The goal of the plan was to identify how communities would manage the anticipated growth in population, and thereby in the number of homes on the island. Where could new homes be constructed and how many homes would be allowed on each parcel of land? Were there sufficient systems to handle the growth in demand for water, sewer, storm-water management and transportation?
Divergent analyses placed the county in a deadlock for most of the year 2000. County commissioners placed a land division moratorium on much of the island. In addition, the nonprofit water association for the village of Eastsound was prohibited from selling new water memberships because of a lack of supply and storage capacity. The majority of OPAL’s housing is located in Eastsound. OPAL could not purchase land under these conditions and therefore spent most of one year participating in the planning process. During this time, OPAL also started to raise funds to help it secure water memberships in Eastsound when they were available again – no homes could be constructed without water readily available.
A New Experiment: Existing Homes Purchased and Renovated
For some time OPAL had considered buying separate parcels, on “scattered sites,” with or without existing homes, with several goals in mind: to reuse older housing stock; to establish land-trust homes in various places on the island; to serve qualified applicants who preferred living outside OPAL neighborhoods; and to see whether housing could be delivered more quickly and less expensively than through development.
In 2000 OPAL was awarded a grant from the Washington State Housing Trust Fund for this scattered-site program. Locating houses whose purchase prices were low enough – around $150,000 – and which met other criteria proved to be a tall order in Orcas Island’s tight, expensive housing market. Nevertheless, in 2001 OPAL found and renovated two suitable houses, one in Olga and the other in Eastsound, and helped the new leaseholders/homeowners secure mortgages from USDA and private lenders. Later, in 2002, a third house, also in Eastsound, was purchased under this program.
This approach turned out to be more expensive than creating housing in neighborhoods, primarily because the existing houses were so costly.
First Island Survey Shows Unmet Need for Affordable Homes
In spring 2001, in collaboration with the Orcas Family Resource Center and the Orcas School District, OPAL conducted a survey to capture a broad picture of housing needs on the island and to guide its future activities. As expected, in a county with the largest wage-income/housing-price gap in the state, the responses showed a great unmet need for affordable housing, both rentals and homes to buy.
As Costs Rise, OPAL Moves to Modular Homes
Unable to find enough suitable houses for the scattered-site program, OPAL jumped on an opportunity to buy a 2.8-acre site in Eastsound with water memberships (a rarity at the time), which would permit 11 homes to be built, in two clusters.
The five single-family homes in the first neighborhood, named Oberon Wood, were modular, built in a factory, trucked to the site in October 2002, and erected on concrete foundations. These met the mortgage lenders’ standards (the Uniform Building Code) and were an economical and speedy means of delivering high-quality housing. As in OPAL’s previous neighborhoods, the future residents were involved in site planning and in many aspects of their house designs.
OPAL Collaborates with Other County Land Trusts to Achieve Synergies
In 2003, with a three-year grant from Impact Capital, OPAL joined with the three other CLTs in the county (on Lopez, San Juan, and Waldron islands) to form the Community Land Trust Alliance of the San Juan Islands. They aimed to improve operational efficiencies, strengthen the stewardship of the land trusts on each island, provide more permanently affordable housing, and foster sustainable economic development throughout the county. The group’s first effort was a countywide housing survey, whose results confirmed and expanded on those of the earlier Orcas survey.
Another First: Rental Apartments and Office Space
The site plan for the “Reddick property,” a one-acre piece of the original 20 acres on which Bonnie Brae is clustered, went through a long gestation, from 1996 until the summer of 2002, when site work began. The first idea was simply to restore the historic Reddick farmhouse as office space for OPAL, but in the end the building proved too rundown to be economically remodeled or removed and it was demolished.
In its place OPAL built a facsimile of the old farmhouse, to hold office space and a conference room. The expanded plan also included two “carriage houses” with three apartments each, added largely in response to the 2001 housing needs survey. The fourth building in the complex was designed to resemble an old barn on the property. It combined an apartment above with offices below – one for OPAL’s own permanent headquarters and one for the nonprofit Eastsound Water Users Association, a long-term leaseholder and co-mortgagee. OPAL and the other tenants occupied their new homes and offices in early 2004.
“Green” building components were another distinguishing feature of the Reddick complex. Although OPAL had tried without much success to incorporate such elements in previous projects (cost factors kept overriding its ideals), this time they were implemented. A rainwater-catchment system, linoleum flooring instead of more toxic vinyl, and plywood cabinets rather than particleboard provided environmental benefits that more than offset the slight cost increase.
Continuing to Grow Through Unexpected Opportunities and Donations
In January 2004 OPAL received an exciting offer from Lahari Hospice and Respite Care in Deer Harbor: Would the CLT like to purchase five existing lots, with septic and water approved, at a price well below market value? This offer was attractive not only because it would allow OPAL to develop a neighborhood in a new part of Orcas with a small business core, but also because Lahari would be an ideal partner, also committed to affordable housing.
OPAL’s board and staff were immediately enthusiastic. When three months of feasibility analysis revealed grounds for cautious optimism, OPAL plunged ahead with a grant application in March 2004, and then continued to iron out the kinks. By April, the strength of the project proposal had yielded $65,000 from local fundraising, and in July the Washington State Housing Trust Fund awarded a grant of $248,000, despite increasingly stiff competition for these funds.
To help carry some higher than expected costs for engineering design and site work, Lahari eventually agreed to include a sixth lot. As soon as the purchase was completed in October, construction started on the 840-square-foot cabin-like homes. The homeowners, who participated in designing and finishing their homes, moved into Lahari Ridge in the summer of 2005.
Meanwhile, in September 2004, another exciting step in OPAL’s history: the CLT received the first donation of a developable lot, on Madrona Street in Eastsound. Two single-family houses, constructed in accordance with OPAL’s green building guidelines, were completed in 2006. These were the first homes available to homebuyers above 80% of median income, because the entire project was funded by private donations.
The generosity of the Orcas Island community continued. In 2006, OPAL purchased 7.25 acres of land in Eastsound on Mt. Baker Road; over the next five years this would become the Wild Rose Meadow neighborhood of 32 homes. The land purchase was funded exclusively with private funds, enabling OPAL to provide a mixed-income neighborhood. Then in January 2007, OPAL’s largest single donation provided the catalyst to purchase of a 6-acre property in the hamlet of Orcas Village, next to the ferry terminal.
On the national level, the National Community Land Trust Network was formed in 2006, representing nearly 200 CLTs around country. OPAL’s executive director, Lisa Byers, was elected founding president at the organization’s first national meeting.
First Ever “Legacy Gift” Inspires Alternative Form of Donation
In 2007, a long-time OPAL supporter, Sandy Thompson, approached OPAL with the desire to convert her second home on the island, a rental, into an OPAL home. In September 2008, OPAL purchased the land and home at a bargain price – 40% below market. That price enabled OPAL to resell the home on leased land for a price affordable for a middle-income islander.
OPAL Preserves Community Access to Low-Rent Apartments
In late 2007, OPAL signed an agreement, contingent upon grant funding, to buy the Lavender Hollow apartments – 22 low-rent units in a complex of 8 buildings in Eastsound. OPAL ownership meant the affordability of the apartments would be preserved, and the Orcas community would continue to have access to a range of rental housing. OPAL received the necessary funding from a variety of sources. It would take three years for the complicated transfer of ownership to be completed.
OPAL’s Most Ambitious Project: A $10 Million Investment in Affordable Housing
After permitting delays, construction of the first 18 houses in Wild Rose Meadow began in 2008. To assure quality and save on construction costs, factory stick-built houses were delivered in wall panel sections. The 2- and 4-bedroom houses were designed to be the most durable, low maintenance and energy efficient that OPAL had ever built. The new neighborhood featured rain gardens and bioswales for storm-water management and the first pervious pavement on the island. Local contractors were used throughout.
In 2009, the first homeowners moved into Wild Rose Meadow – just in time for OPAL’s 20th anniversary celebration. Meanwhile the economic crisis of 2008 caused OPAL to pause before launching into the planned second phase of the project. With encouragement from long-time supporters and the Orcas community, OPAL decided – for the first time – to borrow the necessary funding from two other island nonprofits in order to maintain momentum, keep crews working, and avoid paying higher costs later. Construction of the final 14 houses was completed in 2010. Wild Rose Meadow, with a total of 32 homes, remains OPAL’s largest and most diverse neighborhood in terms of ages and incomes.
Apartment Renovations and a Bumper Crop of Gifted Houses
In 2011, more than three years after the purchase agreement was signed, OPAL took over ownership of the Lavender Hollow apartments. The following year, $900,000 in renovations, funded by the Washington State Housing Trust Fund, was undertaken to improve energy efficiency and ADA accessibility, and to extend the life of the 23-year-old buildings.
Unexpectedly 2011 also brought a bounty of donated houses. Philip Rife, an 11-year Orcas resident, donated his house and lot in Eastsound to OPAL. Then the Baker family asked if OPAL would be interested in “recycling” their long-time vacation house, which needed to be moved to make way for new construction. OPAL staff, after inspecting the house and consulting with house movers, replied with an enthusiastic “yes.” OPAL owned vacant land adjoining Oberon Wood that was available for relocating the house. And so began a new neighborhood – Oberon Meadow – and a new model of accepting suitable, donated island houses, which OPAL then moves, renovates, and “recycles” to qualifying families.
Three additional island houses, each donated to OPAL by its owners, soon joined the Baker house to complete the Oberon Meadow neighborhood in 2013.
In the meantime, thanks to grants from the Washington State Housing Trust Fund, OPAL has continued to concentrate on expanding the number of scattered-site properties available on Orcas. A bank-owned house in Eastsound was purchased, renovated and resold. A fifth house was donated to OPAL and relocated to a donated lot in Eastsound; it is OPAL’s ninth scattered-site property.