Our affordable housing problem is complicated, but essentially it boils down to this: More and more people cannot afford to live in Walla Walla.
This problem impacts not only the city of Walla Walla, but our region as a whole. In 2019, Community Council found that four out of every 10 households in Columbia County, Walla Walla County and Milton-Freewater that pay rent or a mortgage spend 30% or more of their income on housing.
Since 2019, housing unaffordability has likely gotten worse. As of July 2020, total quarterly wages for Walla Walla County were 2% lower than in 2019. Over that same period, housing costs actually increased another 2.5%!
This growing gap between incomes and housing costs impacts virtually everyone in our community. It impacts young people looking for a place to start their families and/or their careers.
It impacts seniors trying to get by on retirement and social security income. It impacts mid-career professionals who would like to work in our region but can’t afford to.
In fact, I know of one police officer who wanted to work in College Place, but couldn’t because he couldn’t find an affordable home there.
Friends, we have a serious problem on our hands when so many community members can’t afford to live here. Our quality of life and our economy are at risk. And while many organizations here are doing great work to address this problem, we need to do more.
I believe what we need is a community land trust. A CLT is a lot like other land trusts you may be familiar with. Take the Blue Mountain Land Trust for example. The difference is in the purpose of the trust.
Whereas the Blue Mountain Land Trust preserves land for environmental conservation, a CLT preserves land for permanently affordable homes. A CLT owns land, while residents can buy or rent the homes on top of the CLT land. By taking the land cost out of the real estate equation, a CLT makes homes more affordable.
A CLT would be an excellent addition to our community for a few important reasons.
First, CLTs are typically built around single-family homeownership. Most other approaches to affordable housing utilize rentals and rental vouchers. CLTs are different because residents can buy their homes. Homeowners in a CLT build real equity for their households. This creates more financial stability in people’s lives, as well as a sense of belonging and a sense of “home” that is difficult to create with rentals.
Another advantage to CLTs is their financial sustainability. With publicly funded housing subsidies, the cost of those subsidies is connected to the housing market. As rents get more expensive, more funding is needed to keep these programs going.
This is not the case with a CLT. CLTs take up-front donations of land and other capital funds to create homes that are permanently affordable.
Another benefit of CLTs is that they often support the “missing middle” households — those who make too much money to qualify for public housing, but make too little to qualify for conventional mortgages.
Many affordable housing solutions are targeted to low- and very low-income households. This means that families in the middle-income range are left on their own to keep up with the housing market. CLTs can step in and help households at income levels that are not covered by other programs.
Over the last year, I have had the honor of working with Community Council and many community volunteers to establish a CLT in Walla Walla — Common Roots Housing Trust.
On Monday at 6:00 p.m., we invite you to attend a live town hall to learn more and ask questions about this exciting initiative. To register for the event, please visit: commonrootshousing.org/events or bit.ly/3hPc3h5
Walla Walla is a truly special place in the world, and I believe Common Roots Housing Trust will help us keep it that way. I hope you can join me on Monday to learn more!