by Erin Wygant
San Juan County Communications Coordinator
To some, the term ‘affordable housing’ means nothing more than a low monthly payment. But to Stephanie Nouvel and her family of four, ‘affordable housing’ means so much more. For the Orcas Island family, it means community, opportunity, and growth.
“I don’t think we’d still be living on Orcas Island if not for OPAL and this house,” said Nouvel. “For us, having an affordable monthly payment greatly eased financial stress, freeing up our time and improving the quality of our lives.”
The Nouvels live in OPAL’s Wild Rose Meadow neighborhood alongside 31 other families. OPAL, which stands for “Of People and Land,” is a community land trust focused on affordable housing. OPAL households currently represent nearly 5% of the estimated full-time residences on Orcas and 10% of Orcas Island’s school-age children live in OPAL homes, according to their website.
Founded in 1989, OPAL continues to develop new housing opportunities – most recently purchasing the Northern Heights apartment building and constructing the April’s Grove neighborhood. Both projects were made possible in part by a strong partnership with San Juan County.
“Ever since OPAL started, the County has been supportive of our efforts,” said Lisa Byers, who has worked as OPAL’s Executive Director since 1996.
San Juan County’s Department of Health and Community Services stewards the Home Fund – a real estate excise tax-funded program to develop and preserve affordable housing in San Juan County. Over the voter-approved 12-year tax period, the San Juan County Home Fund is projected to generate $15.2 million. So far, $2,862,300 has been spent on Orcas Island – the most of any island in the County.
“The voters passing the Home Fund has been a substantial game changer for us,” said Byers. “Prior to the Home Fund, OPAL’s projects were funded by grants from federal programs, the state Housing Trust Fund and private donations. Federal funds have declined, and costs have gone up significantly, making the Home Fund an important new partner.”
April’s Grove was one of the firsts projects to use the Home Fund and became the first new rental housing owned by non-profits at any scale in San Juan County over the last 30 years. San Juan County contributed $1,750,000 towards the cost of construction of the project.
Like many affordable housing projects in San Juan County, dollars from the Home Fund were just one of multiple ways the County sought to support the project. The County also contributed over $250,000 from other revenue sources to help cover the cost of things like building permit and architecture fees and managed a federal Community Development Block Grant in conjunction with OPAL which brought in an additional $200,000 to the project.
The County also provides rent subsidies on an ongoing basis to seven extremely low-income tenants at April’s Grove through it’s Senior & Disabled Rental Subsidy program to reduce the housing cost burden for those tenants.
“It’s probably the most diverse neighborhood that I know of on Orcas Island,” Byers said. “There are newborns, families, and those well into their 90s. Some are retired, but most adults who live there work multiple jobs. And a high proportion of those folks speak English as a second language.”
Affordable, safe, and stable housing allowed Nouvel and her family to pursue new careers, passions, and a sustainable life on Orcas Island. Nouvel’s husband, Ryan Kennedy, was able to go back to school, earn a degree in education, and now teaches math at Orcas Island High School. Nouvel now works at the public school as a part-time substitute teacher, and together, are proud to be part of Orcas Island’s vibrant community.
“We love our neighbors,” Nouvel said. “Some of them are like grandparents to our kids – they’ve known them their whole lives.”