Affordable Housing: Lopez’s Community-Driven Solutions

Submitted by San Juan County.

Leyna Lavinthal and her family of three are about to celebrate a major milestone – one year in secure, affordable housing. The Lavinthal family left Seattle behind and moved to Lopez Island in 2018 in search of a safe community to raise their son, Benji. But the first three years of island life proved challenging.

“We were totally naive to how difficult it is to find a rental here – and even when we were lucky enough to find a house, it didn’t always cover our basic necessities,” said Lavinthal as she recounted her first years on the island.

In just two years, the Lavinthal’s rent increased by 20% and the family often went without water.

“Our water was always going out and still our landlord dramatically increased our rent. It became unsustainable, but we were told that ‘that’s just the way it is in the islands’ – not getting basic needs met.”

More than 40% of Lopez residents (320+ families) struggle to maintain decent, safe, and affordable places to live, according to Housing Lopez, a not-for-profit housing development organization.

That’s why the organization decided to build a community of six, two-bedroom, one-bathroom homes – each a modest 843 square feet near the heart of Lopez Village. Thanks to $600,000 from San Juan County and a discounted price on the land previously owned by the County’s Public Works department, the project broke ground in the spring of 2021 and was dubbed the ‘Fishbay Cottages.’

“We wouldn’t have been able to do this project without the County,” said John Taylor, the co-chair of Housing Lopez. “The REET funds we received were key to our ability to fund the project. Otherwise, we’d most likely still be raising money.”

San Juan County supported the project via the Home Fund – a real estate excise tax-funded program to develop and preserve affordable housing in San Juan County. Over the 12-year tax period approved by voters, the San Juan County Home Fund is projected to generate $15.2 million. In the program’s first four years, $932,835 has been spent on Lopez Island.

When construction wrapped in the fall of 2021, the Fishbay Cottages officially welcomed the first tenants – including the Lavinthal family.

“It was kind of a lifesaver to be honest – and I know my fellow neighbors feel the same way. It’s not the fact that it is affordable, as much as the fact that it’s secure. No one is going to sell this house from underneath me. That’s the biggest relief.”

The units are rented to locals with incomes between 50% and 80% of area median household income and work in essential services.

“We wanted our first project to support those who are essential to the viability of our community,” said Taylor. “We wanted to reach those working in healthcare, education, fire and rescue, and other central services who were having a difficult time finding affordable rentals.”

Housing Lopez already has its sights set on the next project – a 45-unit community in Lopez Village. The organization purchased nine acres in July 2022 and has developed a three-phase plan to build 15 units at a time over the coming years.

This project, dubbed “Lopez Village North,” received an initial commitment of $616,252 from the County’s Home Fund in the 2022 funding round to help offset land acquisition costs. Additionally, in partnership with the County, Housing Lopez applied for and was this month awarded a $400,000 Connecting Housing to Infrastructure grant from the Washington Department of Commerce to help pay for utility infrastructure for the project.

“As great of a project as the Fishbay Cottages is – and it is great and we’re proud of it – this is just the first of many,” said Taylor. “And we’re going to need the County’s help on every one of them.”

Learn more about the Home Fund and other affordable housing initiatives here: