According to a 2005 study “They Paved Paradise…Gentrification in Rural Communities” by the Housing Assistance Council, a national non-profit that supports the development of rural low-income housing, most of the population growth in the rural U.S. from 1990 to 2000 occurred in high amenity rural counties.
High amenity rural areas have a lot going for them, from stunning scenery, accessible recreation and clean air and water to remoteness and a strong sense of community. Their high quality of life appeals to many, but because properties are so desirable, and some have limited land due to surrounding public lands or water, their high prices make affordable housing a particular challenge.
One of those areas is Jackson Hole, Wyoming, population 10,532, where the median sale price of a home is just under $1.6 million. Of those in the local workforce, 43% commute from surrounding counties. Each day, 11,000 cars drive over the mountain pass into town for work.
Orcas Island, Washington, part of the San Juan Archipelago, with a population of 3,100, is another one. From 1970 to 2012, the average wage in San Juan County increased 392% while the average assessed value of property increased by 3,117%. Many homes are owned by part-time residents; in the last census, the housing vacancy rate was 40%.
According to research by the Housing Assistance Council, rural gentrification looks different than urban gentrification. More residents in rural areas are “locked out” of new development rather than displaced from their homes. To a greater extent, rural gentrification is primarily about class differences and less about racial differences.
What that looks like in places like Jackson Hole and Orcas Island is that essential local workers, from firefighters and nurses to teachers and cooks, get squeezed out of the housing market.
Affordable housing advocates point out that the lack of housing options also affect the fabric and quality of community life, the ability of employers to recruit and retain staff, and the health of the ecosystem.
Community Land Trust Solution
The OPAL (Of People And Land) Community Land Trust is a non-profit working to increase affordable housing options on Orcas Island. Founded in 1989, OPAL was one of the first community land trusts in the west. OPAL CLT owns 108 houses and 30 rentals, with April’s Grove, a neighborhood of 45 townhome rentals, under construction.
“It is not a lack of buildings, it is a lack of access,” says Lisa Byers, executive director of OPAL Community Land Trust.
The community land trust model aims to make purchasing a house affordable by taking the cost of the land out of the equation. The homeowner owns the home but leases the land from the land trust, who owns it in perpetuity. When the home is re-sold, a cost formula balances again for the previous owner with affordability for the new owner. Residents can purchase from OPAL for approximately 60% of the home’s appraised value. As non-profits, Trusts also enable long-term affordability for rental homes.
In 1992, a group of Jackson Hole residents foresaw their coming housing crunch and created Jackson Hole Community Housing Trust. In April, construction will commence on their 8th project called King Street, 24 ownership condos in the heart of downtown. The CHT has developed or acquired 146 homes which have served more than 420 people.
As non-profits serving fundamental community needs, housing trusts tap into a variety of funding sources.
OPAL receives support from local excise and real estate transaction taxes and the Washington State Housing Trust Fund. On the federal level, they access a Community Development Block Grant. One key partner is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmer’s Home Loan Program, whose low-interest loans enable new home-owners to access mortgages.
Jackson Hole CHT has partnered extensively with the town, receiving both donations of land and funds for construction. A significant grant from Wells Fargo will support their newest project. The community also just approved a special tax, part of which will be earmarked for affordable housing efforts.
Both groups also rely extensively on donations of money, land, and time. One of OPAL’s neighborhoods is exclusively made of donated homes that were moved to the site and renovated for new owners. Jackson Hole CHT is seeking $2 million in philanthropy for their current project.
Even after decades of work, Byers admits they are only scratching the surface of the community need. “There are very generous folks in the community, but we are limited by funding.”
One piece of the funding issue is challenging misperceptions. Both Orcas Island and Jackson Hole are perceived as wealthy. But the reality is that wealth is not evenly distributed.
“San Juan County has the 10th highest level of wealth inequality in the nation,” said Byers.
“We continue to seek grants that recognize the unique need in Jackson Hole,” said Stefani Wells, Communications and Development Director at the HLT.
Wells is buoyed by the momentum she sees in Jackson Hole behind affordable housing solutions. “There are lots of people stepping up and doing something, all working together, on something that benefits all of us,” she said. “There is lots of housing in the pipeline, by us and others, and people are excited to make a difference.”