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Affordable Housing? Vision or Mirage for the Methow Valley?

By Katharine Bill

It was 4 degrees out this morning when I fed the dog. As I appreciate the fire next to me, I am, once again, amazed that all 5,000 residents of the Methow Valley (and many visitors) are all, in one form or another, working to stay warm this morning.

Under the surface of the spectacular natural beauty of this valley, an infrastructure including water, wood, electricity and community literally sustains our lives. While the magenta sunrises and sparkling fields go on dazzling people day after day, over the past few years there has been a less beautiful fact lurking in the shadows.

Here it is in the light of day-- in Okanogan County, from 2003-2006:
• median home prices increased an average of 32% per year
• median household income levels increased an average of 3% per year.

Take note that those numbers are for our entire County. It is likely that the Methow Valley median home price increases outpaced those for the County as a whole. Meanwhile, the wages for our teachers, nurses, cooks, shopkeepers and even doctors remain low in comparison to urban areas (the median income for the County is 33% less than the statewide average).

Some call it being paid in quality of life rather than in annual income. Here in the Methow Valley we have clean air, water, silence, recreation, little traffic, and immense beauty. However, when it comes to mortgage payments or property taxes, the increase in real estate values equates to a real cost for working families, and making ends meet in the Methow Valley has become harder.

Granted, by the third quarter of 2008, according to the Washington State Real Estate Research Center, median home prices in Okanogan County had dropped 10% from the same quarter in 2007, and building permits were down by 45%.

The wild inflation of prices, the building speculation, and the families taking risks to live in the Methow Valley has slowed in recent months. The number of for sale signs has increased. Great properties are on the market. Like a game of musical chairs, the music has stopped. Some are sitting on fine homes, while others are left standing with debt and a slow market. What comes next?

As Bertold Brecht said, “because things are the way they are, they will not stay the way they are.” If anything, the wild variation in prices and values over the past four years has shown the value of attending to basic needs: food, water, shelter. For individuals, and for the community as a whole, these basic needs can be met in a variety of ways, from self-sufficient production and hard work, to efficient distribution of affordable goods and services, to smart development, to regulation that supports local innovation and leadership.

A few examples of these kinds of projects give me hope that the seeds for affordable life in the Methow Valley are already well-sowed.
• The Classroom in Bloom project provides thousands of dollars of food to our public schools each year, along with involving kids from grades K-12 in food production. Not only does this project teach ways to keep food affordable and independent, it also serves up lessons in health, nurturing and physical work for all in the public schools.
• Small building renovation and building in the towns. Over the past three years I’ve observed numerous individuals rehabbing old houses in Winthrop and Twisp, and building new small houses. These people are quietly plugging into the idea of clustered housing, decreasing traffic and increasing time spent walking. Also, these builders are showing that affordable housing can exist in the Methow Valley.
• Community infrastructure supports affordable building. Many local contractors and architects are willing to meet with prospective homebuilders and share advice and insight; there is a growing building materials recycling center in Twisp; Methow Arts, the Methow Conservancy and the Confluence Gallery have provided programs and resources to help families conserve materials, build efficiently, and learn from others. Also the towns of Winthrop and Twisp, along with the County, are striving to keep taxes and requirements to a manageable level.

According to the Washington State Real Estate Research Center, ‘affordable’ means that no more than 25% of a family’s income goes to paying the mortgage or rent. Given the 2007 median income for the Methow Valley of $42,670 (, the median families can, in theory, pay up to $10,700 per year ($889 per month) in housing costs.

The following example illustrates this so-called affordability:
• Assume a lot in Winthrop costs $50,000,
• Assume building a 1,000 square foot home costs $100 per square foot (with sweat equity included). Then the cost to build a small home (including the lot) would be $150,000.
• Given current mortgage rates of around 5.3%, and a 20% down payment, monthly payments on a 30-year fixed mortgage would be roughly $830 per month. This does not include utilities, property taxes or insurance.
• This example assumes a working family can come up with a 20% down payment ($30,000 in this example).

Several alternatives exist to increase the likelihood that affordable housing will happen as the Methow Valley continues to grow. Affordable housing is not a new problem, and luckily there are many solutions from other places that might be tailored to the needs in the Methow.
• Create a low-interest revolving loan fund to help qualified working families make down payments on their first property.
• Create several sets of plans for small houses that are pre-approved by the County, and ready to build. Include specific provisions in these plans for winter-living (smart roofing and entryway designs), adequate insulation, locally milled wood, energy efficiency (and rebates), solar options, and low-cost plumbing and electrical designs. Offer these free of charge to qualified people.
• Start a Builder’s Guild (including architects, lumber yards, concrete companies, builders, planners, etc.) that might promote affordable, smart building practices. Such a guild would be good marketing and would also benefit families dreaming of owning their own home.
• Start a Community Land Trust that would offer long-term leases for qualified families, similar to those in Leavenworth and Chelan.
• Offer property tax reduction options to certain types of working families (teachers, nurses, etc.).
• Work with the Towns and County to streamline the permitting and review process for small houses, particularly in the Towns. Offer fee reduction and technical assistance to qualified families.

Already here in the Methow many people will pitch in to loan tools, put on roofs in blizzards, share recycled materials and generally do what needs to be done. This approach takes a certain willingness to be patient, be frugal and accept help. To date, that is the affordable housing ‘program’ for the Methow Valley, and I believe it has worked quietly and effectively even through the wild storm of real estate speculation over the past five years. But will this volunteer spirit continue to be enough, or is it time for more?

This community pulls together every day around one cause or another. Shelter is one that shouldn’t be overlooked or underestimated in importance as the Methow continues to change.

February 2nd, 2009