Housing project clears final hurdle

Nearly a decade after it first announced the project to the community, Vashon HouseHold is about to start looking for buyers for the 14 owner-built homes at its Sunflower Community Land Trust project.

Vashon HouseHold cleared its last hurdle in what has been a long path to development on Monday, when the King County Council unanimously approved the 14-plat subdivision for the affordable housing project on Bank Road. With that approval in place, the nonprofit housing developer plans to hold meetings to discuss Sunflower with prospective buyers next month. Construction could begin by late summer, said Chris Szala, Vashon HouseHold’s director.

A number of issues slowed the pace of the project — from a county decision that a stretch of Bank Road had to be lowered, to the nationwide financial crisis, which resulted in a sudden lack of funds for federally subsidized mortgages.

It’s been a frustrating process, Vashon HouseHold staff and board members say. And they’re thrilled they’re finally starting down a new path — one that will soon lead to the construction of what county and Vashon HouseHold officials say will be an affordable, green-built community with many amenities. 

“The fact that we’re finally over the last hurdle the county put up is a great weight off our shoulders,” said Sue Gardner, who chairs Vashon HouseHold’s board of directors. “We’re more than delighted to move forward on this promise we’ve made to this community.”

They also say they’ve learned a lot in the years that it’s taken them to get to this point in the project. As a result, Sunflower — a collection of 14 homes on nearly six acres just east of Island Lumber — will differ from Roseballen Community Land Trust, the first sweat-equity home-ownership project Vashon HouseHold spearheaded.

Like Roseballen, 19 homes completed two years ago, Sunflower will be built largely 

by its owners and the volunteers they recruit, a significant investment in sweat equity that makes them far more affordable than any other new construction in the region. Many of the buyers, who must have low incomes and be first-time homeowners, will also receive subsidized mortgages, with interest rates far below those offered by commercial lenders.

As a result, Sunflower’s prices, like those at Roseballen, will be much more affordable than most houses on Vashon. The two- to five-bedroom homes are expected to cost between $180,000 and $200,000, Szala said. 

But Roseballen, Gardner said, provided a steep learning curve for Vashon HouseHold and its partner in the project, Northwest Housing Development Corp. The homes took much longer to build than Vashon HouseHold and Northwest Housing Development had anticipated. Some of the homeowners expressed frustration along the way, and many were exhausted by the time they finally moved into the craftsman-style homes just west of the Vashon post office.

With Sunflower, Vashon HouseHold has made changes that will make the process much easier for new homeowners, Szala and Gardner said. 

First, the homes — designed by Vashon architect Keith Putnam — are not as architecturally complex as those at Roseballen, which were designed by Northwest Housing Development, Szala said. They’ll be just as beautiful or to some people, even more so, he said. But the lines will be cleaner and simpler, making it much easier for homeowners to construct.

What’s more, the project will receive more support from professionals. At Roseballen, homeowners did nearly everything; at Sunflower, they’ll get significantly more help with the foundation, the roof and other complex parts of the project.

“We’re hoping that by shortening the process, simplifying the plans and providing more professional help, it’ll be more attractive to people,” Szala said.

Sunflower will be different from Roseballen in other ways. It will be a walk-in community, with houses clustered closely together and parking adjacent to the project, leaving nearly 60 percent of the site as open space. Many of the other features will make it the greenest project Vashon HouseHold has done to date — from Energy Star appliances to walkways that are permeable, ensuring that rainfall recharges the aquifer rather than flows into stormwater drains and into Puget Sound.

Both Szala and Gardner said they realize they’ll be marketing the project to a small number of would-be buyers; not many families will financially qualify for such a project, and some of those who do won’t have the time or wherewithal to help build their own home. What’s more, they’ll be marketing Sunflower at a time when housing prices on Vashon have fallen considerably; though the inventory is small, a family can buy an existing home for around $300,000 or so on Vashon right now.

Even so, they said, they believe the buyers are out there. 

“While it may be more difficult from the economic standpoint, I think the appeal hasn’t diminished,” Gardner said. “For some people, this will be the avenue they have for home ownership.”

Szala agreed: “A $250,000 home on Vashon is a home that needs work. ... I think we’re confided that we can get people in. It might take time.”

Vashon HouseHold first announced it was putting people on a waiting list for the project in August 2007, with plans to begin construction the following spring. But one issue after another bedeviled the small nonprofit, the most significant one being the county’s decision that the span of Bank Road directly in front of the project had to be lowered so that drivers weren’t pulling out onto a hill — a traffic hazard, county engineers said. 

That put the project back nearly 18 months and forced Vashon HouseHold to scramble for funds to cover the costs of the road work, which came in at $380,000, Szala said. Then the country’s mortgage and financial institutions crashed, a recession followed, and the federal program that provides subsidized mortgages lost its funding. 

For the first part of this year, it wasn’t clear if Congress would restore funding for the USDA-run program. Last month, when Congress passed its budget, Szala said, he and others learned that the program was again funded, adding a greater sense of urgency to the Sunflower effort.

“The funds are there now,” said Barry Brodniak, executive director of Northwest Housing Development. “So we want to move.”

Jean Bosch, a real estate agent who helped found Vashon HouseHold 20 years ago, said she’s pleased that Sunflower seems to finally be taking off. She knows many of the people who live in Roseballen — Islanders, she said, “who are real community members but who couldn’t have afforded home ownership any other way.” Sunflower, she said, will once again provide that opportunity to families.

Even with the Island’s low prices, she said, “I still deal with a lot of people who can’t afford to buy on Vashon, and a lot of those people are people who live here and whose families have lived here for generations.”

“They’re subject to the whims of the rental world,” she added. “And some really want to put down roots.”





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