Our island’s working folk have a new resource for living in quality homes they can afford, thanks to Home on Whidbey, a community land trust that formed last July.

HOW, a non-profit met Jan. 24 to unveil its plan for providing permanently affordable homes and a thriving community for island residents.

With more than 225 such community land trusts operating nationwide today, HOW joins their ranks. The non-profits use a combination of public and private funds to fill the gap between what a family can afford and what the home actually costs.

San Juan Community Land trust homes. Photo shared by Ross Chapin

How this works can be explained by following a link on Home on Whidbey’s webpage to Grounded Solutions Network, an Oakland-based network of national community land trusts.

“A typical community land trust operates this way:

  • A family or individual purchases a house that sits on land owned by the community land trust.
  • The purchase price is more affordable because the homeowner is only buying the house, not the land.
  • The homeowners lease the land from the community land trust in a long-term (often 99-year), renewable lease.
  • The homeowners agree to sell the home at a restricted price to keep it affordable in perpetuity, but they may be able to realize appreciation from improvements they make while they live in the house.”

Locally, the community supports permanently affordable homes on the island by either becoming a member, making a charitable donation, or, creating a legacy by donating or selling property to Homes on Whidbey.

Chatting with Paul Schissler, HOW’s  interim executive director, a week later, I learned that Paul had brainstormed with local architect Ross Chapin and others to create the non-profit. Kirsten Johnson is HOW’s board president, and a Langley homeowner.

Ross Chapin, according to his website, has designed award-winning, human-scaled neighborhoods for years: “We are now focusing almost exclusively on community-oriented projects, taking our knowledge and passion for well-designed homes and applying it to small-scale infill pocket neighborhoods as well as larger mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods. Creating healthy, resilient communities is our mission.”

Matthei Place,  Bellingham. Photo shared by Kulshan Community Land Trust

Kirsten phoned in from where she was visiting family in Denver. We chatted about how she came to be involved with Home on Whidbey.

“We (and her husband David Rothrock) have known Ross Chapin for years,” Kirsten said. “We were interested in the work he was doing. A couple of years ago he phoned my husband and me asking if we’d be willing to talk about housing. We know people in Langley. We know the owners of the Prima Bistro and Saltwater Fish House. (Prima’s and Saltwater’s co-owner) Jenn Jurriaans has talked about how difficult it is to find housing for their employees. We knew housing was something businesses struggled with. We talked with people whose kids had teachers who needed housing.”

Kirsten said as HOW’s board president, she is climbing a steep learning curve and is grateful  for the guidance of Julie Brunner, Housing Director for Orcas Island’s community land trust, OPAL.

“Julie is helping us get up to speed,” Kirsten added. “Our great hope is to hire permanent employees by this summer. We are looking for locals who are interested in getting involved. We will be fundraising and getting our organizational development funded. We’ll be looking for opportunities for places we can build or develop affordable homes for people to own. We are looking at partnerships and getting our name out to build a strong coalition.”

Paul is a community development planner, who moved to Bellingham, where he helped found the Kulshan Community Land Trust in 1999 serving Whatcom County. A board member at first, Paul was offered the job as its part-time executive director a year later. As it succeeded, he served as the ED full time.

“HOW is off to a quick start because we have exemplary models such as the one on Orcas Island,” Paul noted. “In the San Juan islands (which Orcas Island is part of), people live there part time and full time. Homes are needed by essential workers.”

OPAL Community Land Trust on Orcas Island provides an affordable housing model. In a market with some of the highest prices for real estate, combined with some of the lowest hourly wages in the state, OPAL provides affordable housing for 200 families on an island with a population of just 5,000.

Reddick apartments, East Sound, on Orcas Island. Photo courtesy of OPAL community land trust

“Workers can no longer afford to live where they work,” Paul added. “I’d like to point out it is pretty stressful if you can’t afford rent and other things you need. Kids in the home pick up on the stress. The rest of us who know this is happening are stressed, too. No one escapes the ripple effect.”

A community land trust provides housing within wage earners’ means and helps build, rather than tear a community apart, reducing the pressure of unaffordable mortgages or rents. Non-profits such as Home on Whidbey have access to state and federal funds which subsidize workforce housing.

“Community land trusts are about protecting, preserving and enhancing the community,” Paul added. “It’s not about attracting more people, it’s about providing housing for people who wish to stay. This model focuses on those who can’t afford a home. Even people at median income or well-above that level can’t afford homes at the prices we have today.”

The idea is to fill the gap between the total cost of a home. Say it costs $450,000. The buyer can afford, for instance, $250,000.

“With a community land trust, we fill that gap with private, state and federal contributions,” Paul said. “If we fill that gap once, it’s a kind of bargain for the state. The property becomes permanently affordable.”

Although the land is owned by the trust, banks are providing mortgages these days, Paul said.

Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae are providing mortgages for a 99-year ground lease as long as the homeowners pay their bills and agree to the lease agreements,” Paul added. The banks are comfortable with this model. Not too far out there? No. HOW is mainstream from the perspective of banks, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, WA State Housing Finance Commission, and others who want to see more homes people can afford.”

According to the Home on Whidbey site, “The CLT acquires land through purchase or donation, removing the land from the speculative real estate market. The land provides affordable home opportunities for individuals and families who would otherwise be squeezed out by the housing market due to their income level. The CLT may provide homebuyer subsidies to reduce the home’s price to substantially less than the prevailing market value. CLT homeownership is a proven model that is highly successful across the nation, creating high quality, permanently affordable homes.”

To learn more about successful community land trusts in the Northwest, visit this page and click on the video about the Lopez Island Community Land Trust. Or on the same page, listen to a podcast about the OPAL CLT on Orcas Island.

Below is an image from the Home Trust of Skagit, which gives us a mind map of community land trusts and how they benefit the community:

Mind map of Home Trust of Skagit illustrating how a community trust benefits the community. Photo from Home Trust of Skagit webpage

“It’s an inspiration to think benevolence and capitalism can be put to use for the greater good,” Paul Schissler said.

Become a member of Home on Whidbey for as little as $25 a year. Click here for more information.


Facebook Comments


    • Kate Poss | With Photos by David Welton on

      We have heard that the Coles Road project has a component requiring affordable housing. When we talked with Paul Schissler, he mentioned a possibility of Home on Whidbey’s participation there.

      • Paul Schissler on

        Kate is correct. The landowner/developer of the Coles Valley Planned Unit Development proposal asked Home on Whidbey to participate in creating permanently affordable homes within the project’s neighborhoods. The City of Langley’s citizen advisory committee recommended that the City ask that 30 percent of the homes are more affordable than market price. HOW is one way to accomplish that.

        • Kate Poss | With Photos by David Welton on

          Thanks, Paul. I didn’t know a third of the project was to be considered in the affordable range.

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