This story has been modified since its initial publication to reflect a correction.

Lack of affordable housing will be met with a new solution in Walla Walla and Columbia counties and the Milton-Freewater area, with the formation of a community land trust.

A community land trust is a nonprofit that buys land and holds it permanently in a trust. Through public and private contributions, Common Roots Housing Trust, a new local community land trust, will build and renovate houses to create a supply of permanently affordable homes.

According to an affordable housing study released in 2019 by the Community Council, a local nonprofit, 41% of the region’s homeowners or renters pay more than 30% of their income on rent or mortgage and utilities.

Affordable housing is met when mortgage or rent and utilities do not exceed 30% of a household’s pre-tax income, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The local study led to 28 different recommendations to create more affordable housing in the area. One of those recommendations was forming a community land trust.

A team of community members has been volunteering on a task force for a year, working with Community Council to develop a community land trust in the region.

Common Roots Housing Trust will host a virtual town hall meeting Monday at 6 p.m. for the community to learn more about the organization and ask questions.

“Housing prices are going up so quickly in our region, and wages and incomes are not going up as quickly, so we have an ever-increasing housing affordability gap right now,” said Rachel Elfenbein, advocacy coordinator for Community Council.

In Walla Walla County, the median home price increased 43% between 2013 and 2018, but median wages increased only 17%, according to a release from the Community Council.

There are more than 225 community land trusts in the United States and more than 15 in Washington state, according to an article by The News Tribune, which announced the formation of one in Tacoma last month.

“More are popping up as the concept grows in popularity,” the article stated.

A community land trust in the Portland area, now called Proud Ground, was founded in 1999 and has since allowed 400 families to become first-time homeowners, according to its website.

With a community land trust, homeowners would still buy and sell homes on the land and gain equity on their homes, but the home will always remain in the price range of a low and moderate-income household, Elfenbein said.

This will provide permanently affordable housing opportunities to the “missing middle,” people who make too much money to qualify for public housing assistance but make too little to be able to afford to buy their own home, she said.

More data will be available at the town hall about what kind of homes the group will be looking to build in the area. They will also look at incorporating existing homes through donations and pursuing grant funding to buy existing homes. They may also be interested in purchasing land from seniors on a fixed income who cannot afford their mortgage, Elfenbein said.

“We envision we will serve families with young children and single seniors, so we will have differently sized and laid out homes to meet their different needs,” she said. “And we intend to develop homes that are accessible for residents with disabilities.”

She said the intention is to have the homes blend into the surrounding neighborhoods. The homes do not have to be connected or grouped but can be single units throughout the region.

And the group is in the preliminary stage of discussing another option with local governments that would allow donation of surplus public land to nonprofits for affordable housing, Elfenbein said.

Long-term community members who have seen Walla Walla Valley change and want to make sure there is a place for everyone in the community make up a portion of the volunteers setting up the community land trust, volunteer Terri Silvis said.

Silvis is a newer resident to Walla Walla and has worked in affordable housing, finance and business administration for over 25 years.

She said she had seen the community land trust model work to get more affordable housing in the Portland area.

Photo courtesy of OPAL Community Land Trust.

Chloe LeValley can be reached at chloelevalley@wwub.com or 509-526-8326.

Chloe LeValley covers the cities of Walla Walla and College Place as well as agriculture and the environment in the Walla Walla Valley. She is a graduate of San Francisco State University and joined the Union-Bulletin's team in October 2019.