Photo by Marcy Stamper
The Methow Housing Trust hopes to build as many as six new homes in the next two years at this property in Twisp. The trust will soon solicit design proposals.

Anonymous donor provided funds for Methow Housing Trust

By Marcy Stamper

Efforts to address the the valley’s pressing need for affordable housing got a boost recently when the Methow Housing Trust bought 3.25 acres in Twisp as a site for new homes.

An anonymous donor provided the $311,000 for the trust to buy the undeveloped land on Canyon Street, across from the Whispering Rivers apartment complex between Third and Fifth avenues.

The trust expects to complete four to six homes in two years, said Danica Ready, executive director of the land trust.

“We feel incredibly fortunate, since the No. 1 obstacle for community land trusts is usually the ability to find land appropriate for this use,” Ready said.

The parcel has space for 15 or 16 homes. The trust plans to build on the bank above the 100-year floodplain, with a community garden and play area below, said Ready.

The property came out on top after the trust’s land and development committee evaluated all undeveloped land in Twisp and Winthrop for a match with their criteria — walking distance to grocery stores, the post office and medical services; and access to transportation, said Ready.

The housing trust is now working with the Town of Twisp on the costs and logistics of infrastructure development for water, sewer and roads.

Since being hired in June, Ready has been researching and visiting successful community land trust models. Based on that research and information obtained through a 2016 community needs assessment, the Methow Housing Trust will own the land and sell houses, leasing the land the houses sit on to the homeowner. Each house will have a small yard, said Ready.

The housing trust will solicit designs for the development this fall. Because the property is fairly linear, there aren’t too many configurations that could work for the overall layout, said Ready. Individual homes will share a basic design to keep them affordable, but they will have distinctive elements, said Ready.

“One thing I learned while traveling to different communities is that each neighborhood was unique — they’re not cookie-cutter,” she said.

Breaking ground

The group expects to break ground on infrastructure next year. In the first phase, the trust plans four to six houses so it can fine-tune the process once they see what proves most successful, said Ready.

The trust anticipates creating 1,000-square-foot houses with two or three bedrooms. The houses will be designed to be energy-efficient and low-maintenance. As part of the design process, the trust will consult prospective applicants, said Ready.

“We want to bridge the gap between the people who live here and earn a modest income — and want to continue to live here — and the cost of housing,” said Ready.

Part of the cost of each home will be subsidized — a subsidy in the house itself, not in the family that buys it. To keep the houses affordable, the maximum increase in resale price will be capped for perpetuity at 1.5 percent.

That number can be adjusted if there are unforeseen market changes, but the intent is to keep the homes affordable based on the principles the trust has adopted, said Ready.

“People need to look at housing in a different way,” said Ready. “This is less about an individual family making an investment in housing than about a community making an investment so everyone has a home. We’re looking at housing as a basic human need, not a commodity.”

Long-standing problem

Many elements contribute to the lack of affordable housing in the Methow Valley, said Ready. The proximity to Seattle, which has one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, puts considerable pressure on housing prices in the Methow, since many people want vacation homes and the Methow is well within reach of benefiting from that booming economy, said Ready. The needs assessment found that 41 percent of houses in the Methow Valley are occupied only seasonally.

The housing trust is basing eligibility on needs and values identified by the community and on requirements set by mortgage lenders.

The housing trust’s board is expected to approve the eligibility criteria this week, which would require people to have lived in the Methow for at least two years, said Ready. To be eligible, candidates would have to earn from 60 to 100 percent of the Okanogan County median income of about $40,000 (depending on household size).

The trust chose that range because it’s what federal loan programs use. Banks typically require mortgage recipients to earn between 80 and 100 percent, said Ready. Starting from there, they will work backward to set prices for individual houses, said Ready.

In the Methow, 35 percent of households earn between $25,000 and $50,000 per year, and another 25 percent earn less than $25,000, according to the most recent census, said Ready.

Banks look at income levels by county, but the housing trust may adjust prices to accommodate the cost of living in the Methow. “We want to put people in these homes who are going to be successful,” said Ready. “We know that milk costs more here than it does in Okanogan.”

The trust is continuing to evaluate available land in Twisp and Winthrop. The organization doesn’t plan to renovate existing structures or develop rental units.

The trust is raising funds for infrastructure, design and construction for the Twisp site. Administrative costs are covered for the first year by a grant from Methow Valley Long Term Recovery.

The trust is a membership-based, tax-deductible nonprofit; people can join for $20. For more information, visit methowhousingtrust.org.