A Place to Call Home // Nonprofit Works for Affordable Housing on Bainbridge

By George Soltes

Joanie Nichols fell in love with Bainbridge Island the first time she saw it. The rain reminded the retired pediatric nurse of her home in England. “I know there’s no paradise on this earth,” Nichols stated, “but it comes pretty close here.” The only thing she likes better than the climate of Bainbridge Island, she said, is the people. “I always have faith that there’s somebody around the corner that I’m just itching to meet.”

Five years ago, when her housing plans fell through, Nichols worried that skyrocketing rental prices might force her and her dog Good Girl to leave the place she loved. She sought advice at Helpline House, which directed her to Housing Resources Bainbridge (HRB). She soon found herself in a bright corner apartment at the Village Home complex near downtown Winslow where she lives today.

It’s simple math. The average home price on Bainbridge Island is now $850,000. Buying that house requires a yearly household income somewhere north of $150,000. Entry-level salary for a BISD elementary teacher is about $57,000. Our police officers and firefighters start at around $68,000. The math works no better for the librarians, servers, barbers, builders and other professionals who are vital to our community but, with rents also reaching new heights, may no longer be able to afford to buy or rent a home in the place where they work.

For nearly 30 years, HRB has been working to change that equation. The goal of HRB, in the words of its executive director, Phedra Elliott, is to “keep Bainbridge Island diverse and inclusive of all the important people that a community needs to be healthy.” HRB is a nonprofit community land trust, a concept that combines community ownership of land with private ownership or rental of the homes built on top of it.

Ferncliff Village, completed by HRB in 2016, is a colorful community of 24 single-family homes and 16 townhouses complete with a playground and individual garden plots located on 6 acres just north of the ferry terminal. The homeowners, most of whom make less than 80 percent of the area’s median income, include architects, bankers, teachers and retirees. They acquired their houses using conventional bank mortgages but lease the land under them from HRB. To ensure long-term affordability, the resale price of the home is based on a formula rather than on the market rate.

Additionally, HRB has almost 100 units of rental housing, an independent living program, rental assistance programs, and an innovative HomeShare program that matches people with rooms to rent with those seeking lower cost housing. Demand for HRB housing is high, with about 50 families each on the ownership and rental waiting lists.

Affordable housing can be a loaded phrase, conjuring images of government projects, foreclosures and snarled traffic, to name a few. HRB breaks those stereotypes. “We actually have no ongoing subsidy from the federal or state government,” Elliott explained. “Every dime we get we apply for through grants or we raise through fundraising.”

There has never been a foreclosure of an HRB home and nationally, homeowners within a community land trust are about 10 times less likely to default on their loans than owners of market-rate homes. Penny Lamping, HRB fundraising and communications manager, noted one of the advantages of people living close to where they work. “The direct benefits are seen every day on the highway when you try to drive onto the island in the morning.”

Lamping, a lifelong island resident, remarked on what it is that makes Bainbridge special—“It’s the diversity and the quirkiness of the community.” Lack of affordable housing would put that feature of the island at risk. “I would hate to see that lost,” she said.

While the numbers may seem daunting, Lamping remains optimistic that the problem is not insurmountable. “I fully, truly believe that this community does amazing things and there is no reason we can’t rally together and work on this too.”