For many, the completion of April’s Grove could not have come at a better time.
The first nine households moved into OPAL Community Land Trust’s newest housing project at the beginning of September. For two single parents, they now have a home with bedrooms. A number of tenants had been couch surfing or were homeless.
“It’s been at times heartbreaking in the sense that it’s been a long journey: more than five years with numerous funding rejections that we then had to go back and redo, and then consistently hearing from people who were so desperate for a place to live,” said OPAL Executive Director Lisa Byers. “And the flip side is that I’ve been incredibly inspired by how generous the Orcas community has been and how supportive they are of this project. More than anything we have done, this has captured the heart and imagination of the community. People get what the need is and wanted to be part of the solution. This is not OPAL’s project, it’s the island’s project in a way.”
Over the next three months, 10 to 15 families will move in each month until all 45 townhomes are occupied. Construction is scheduled to be complete by early October, with landscaping to continue through the end of the year. The endeavor — the first new affordable rental housing of significant size in San Juan County in nearly 30 years — has weathered some difficulties.
Planning for April’s Grove began in June 2015 when OPAL signed a purchase and sale agreement and then hosted listening sessions to determine the greatest need, and community design meetings to create preliminary designs. The next three years were filled with studies on traffic, archaeology, wetlands, stormwater detention, soils, and tree health.
Thanks to the voters of San Juan County who adopted a Real Estate Excise Tax in November 2018 and a legacy contribution from Bob Henigson, the construction of April’s Grove began in May of 2019. As construction progressed into 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic began to drastically affect daily lives, Governor Inslee’s Stay Home, Stay Healthy Order identified exemptions for certain activities. Projects like April’s Grove were considered essential, and construction continued with the crews working on-site adopting new protocols to keep workers healthy.
The total cost of the project was $15.5 million with support as follows: $3.4 million in donations and private grants, including $450,000 from the Orcas Island Community Foundation; $4.4 million in Federal, State and Local government grants and deferred loans, including $1.9 million in grants awarded or pending from San Juan County voters and taxpayers; $5.5 million in Federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits; and $2.2 million in a mortgage loan from Washington Federal Bank.
The application period opened in March, and so far OPAL has received 140 requests, which is more than three times what is available in April’s Grove. The granting agencies that OPAL partnered with had requirements for residents: 20 of townhomes had to be occupied with residents below 50 percent of median income; 21 below 60 percent of median income; nine had to prioritize people who are homeless; five had to house those with mental or physical disabilities; nine must be families with children, and nine had to be large households of four people or more. The remaining occupancies were unrestricted.
“We recognized earlier this year that as much as we would be celebrating at this time that we’d also be acknowledging a lot of disappointment,” said Byers. “Going forward, we will always do what we’ve done: continue with scattered-site homes and talking to the community about our biggest needs. The pandemic has revealed in a more clear way that we have a bunch of our neighbors who are chronically homeless. I also hear from middle-class people who are just over the OPAL threshold and extremely frustrated with the real estate prices continuing to increase. There are a whole bunch of people left out. And this is a moment in time where new folks are now choosing to live on the island because of the pandemic. How do we welcome them to the community, and explain what is important to our community?”