Building a community

by Hedrick Smith

Orcas has the irresistible lure of a natural paradise and the attraction of a welcoming civic spirit – a caring human community. A decade ago, that community spirit inspired San Juan Islanders to raise $18.5 million to save Turtle Back Mountain from development and to preserve its pristine beauty.

Every summer we enjoy the remarkable community-funded Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival and rally to support the youth center at Funhouse Commons, the commitment of SeaDocs to protect wildlife and our natural environment and the multiple services funded by the Community Foundation.

For people who care about the Orcas community and who understand the financial stress on middle class families today, the cause that has had the most enduring impact on sustaining our way of life is OPAL, the community housing trust.  (OPAL = “Of People and Land”)

Owning a home is a core value of the middle class American Dream. But in places like Orcas, given the long-term influx of affluent vacation and retirement home buyers, that dream is priced out of reach for many average families.

Fortunately, 25 years ago, some wise and thoughtful Islanders founded OPAL to create affordable housing. People donated land, money, even houses. Over the years OPAL has raised $14 million in private and public assets, enough to provide affordable homes to own for 100 Orcas families and reasonable rentals for 29 more. Today, one in 20 people who live on Orcas year-round and one in 10 children live in OPAL homes.

Truth is, Orcas wouldn’t function the way we want without OPAL. Walk into almost any store or restaurant in Eastsound and odds are you’ve just met an OPAL homeowner – 19 small business owners and 21 restaurant and grocery store workers live in OPAL homes.

Nearly a dozen teachers, tutors and school aides; ten nurses and health care providers; more than 30 landscapers, building trades and home service workers; more than a dozen artists, musicians, photographers and actors; and nearly a dozen staffers at public agencies and non-profits like Orcas Center – all have homes in six OPAL neighborhoods and nearly a dozen scattered houses.

Without OPAL’s help – obtaining, building and offering homes for sale at a median price of $225,000 below the county median, those families might not even be on Orcas today. They would have been priced off island. Without OPAL, our island would have lost their essential skills because long-time residents could not afford to stay and younger families could not afford to move to Orcas to replace them.

“Affordable housing is critical to making a community,” observes Pete Moe, director of the Exchange, former Funhouse director, and an OPAL homeowner. “Were it not for OPAL, our island would lose many working families.”

So for everyone, especially for those of us who cherish Orcas as an irreplaceable retreat from the world, underwriting OPAL is a wise investment – not charity but enlightened self-interest. OPAL makes life affordable for people whom we depend on to make Orcas livable and enjoyable for all.

We need OPAL, and OPAL’s current wait-list of working families in search of homes need our support – for the sake of our entire community.

Hedrick Smith and his wife Susan Zox have lived on Orcas every summer since 2001. Smith is former Washington Bureau Chief of The New York Times and author of the best-seller, “Who Stole the American Dream?”