Lopez Community Land Trust (1989)

Lopez Island, Washington


They said it couldn’t be done – provide homeownership opportunities for people earning less than 60% of median income – so, of course, as islanders, we decided to do it! There is nothing like a challenge, but then again, there is nothing like necessity.

It is trendy in certain parts of the United States to make country living the domain of the wealthy. On Lopez Island, a similar mindset had arisen during the 1980s that said people of lower incomes didn’t deserve to live rurally, much less to enjoy the remote beauty of a small island off the coast of Washington State. And the local real estate market was making that attitude a reality. Land started to be bought and sold sight unseen on the Internet, after the Wall Street Journal published an article stating that the San Juan Islands were a great place to live and to invest. Speculative investment pushed up housing prices, which increased by 196% in 1989 alone.

A group of working folks in our thirties got together because we feared that the up-scaling of Lopez was going to force us out of the very place we loved. Affordable housing was an obvious need, but we also acknowledged many other challenges facing our small rural community: how to steward land and to hold it responsibly; how to create opportunities for local entrepreneurship; and how to support sustainable agriculture, cottage industries and rural forestry.

We looked first at co-housing as a possible solution and then at Habitat for Humanity and a couple of other models. None seemed to be the answer. We needed a flexible strategy that could address a variety of needs, withstand the test of time, and weather the rapid rise of real estate prices.

Around that time, Peter Fisher, a resident of nearby Orcas Island, had just returned from visiting Vermont, where he had heard about community land trusts. He hoped to start one on Orcas. He shared what he had learned about the model with a Lopez islander, Sandy Bishop, a 33-year-old community activist. Sandy was a strong advocate of empowerment and social justice, so the model sounded very appealing.

She contacted the Institute for Community Economics (ICE) and asked for more information. They sent out Chuck Collins to speak with us, while he was on a west coast tour. We were sold. The concept seemed to be both economically sound and firmly rooted in principles of social justice. In 1989, we set about forming the Lopez Community Land Trust (LCLT) as a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) corporation. Sandy Bishop and Rod Morgan played leading roles, joined by Ona Blue, Ted Bower, Sue McCullough, Jeff Hewins, Oscar Smaalders, Liz Scranton, and Rhea Miller, all of whom served on the original Board of Directors.

The charitable purpose of LCLT, as described in our founding documents, was “to build a diverse, sustainable island community, specifically through programs that primarily support low-income households.” LCLT planned to do so by:

  • Acquiring and holding land in trust in order to provide for permanently affordable housing;
  • Building homes and using lands in an environmentally sensitive and socially responsible manner;
  • Providing permanently affordable access to land for such purposes as quality housing, sustainable agriculture and forestry, cottage industries and co-operatives by forever removing land from the speculative market;
  • Developing and exercising responsible and ecological practices which preserve, protect, and enhance the land’s natural attributes; and
  • Serving as a model in land stewardship and community development by providing information, resources and expertise.

These purposes have remained unchanged since 1989. So has the organization’s service area, encompassing the 29.8 square miles of Lopez Island. With so many needs rising at once, however, and with an organization that has never had a large staff, we have had to pick and choose carefully which purposes and projects to pursue.

LCLT’s first de facto executive director, Sandy Bishop, and our project manager, Rod Morgan, worked a year without pay. The first $2,000 in grant funds for LCLT came from a group of Catholic nuns and a Presbyterian church, allowing us to set up an office. A local insurance company offered us a space six days a week; they occupied the same office the other day. LCLT received more small grants and donations, which kept the office running.

In the early 1990’s, affordable housing was the biggest crisis facing the island’s lower-income residents. LCLT quickly realized that its only option was to build dense housing. The dream of helping every person get their own 5 acres was not financially feasible. The only land that was properly zoned and (somewhat) affordably priced was located in Lopez Village. We found a relatively inexpensive one-acre parcel, but it was heavily encumbered with liens. A lot of work was involved to remove these encumbrances. An attorney from Evergreen Legal Services volunteered to help. Then the sewer district refused to service the property and a concerted effort arose among some islanders to stop us.

Extensive education and public speaking were necessary to counter this opposition. Key support came from a local County Commissioner who understood the significance of building affordably priced housing for low-income and low-wage people who already lived and worked on Lopez. But, from other quarters, there was an eruption of hate. Some locals were fearful of what they considered “low-income housing”—dead cars in the yard and old couches and refrigerators on the porch. They feared a devaluation of their own property. There were also racist comments made about LCLT attracting “those people” to the island.

A petition against the project was hidden under the counter at the local pharmacy. Its circulation happened in secret. We didn’t know about it until a friend was surreptitiously asked to sign it and refused. Another citizen, whose property bordered land that LCLT was considering for purchase, threatened the life of one of the co-founders. He invited a Seattle-based television news crew to Lopez to denounce LCLT, but his publicity stunt backfired. He was filmed smoking a cigar and spouting foul language, an unappealing personal appearance when shown against the backdrop of younger, working people seeking to create housing opportunities for their fellow Lopezians.

The first major grant proposal that we submitted for the housing we were hoping to build in Lopez Village was rejected because LCLT didn’t have a proper budget in place. Despite that rejection, we received technical assistance from the Washington State Housing Trust Fund. Our next proposal for project funding was successful. In 1992, LCLT completed its first housing project, seven detached, single-family houses on an acre of land in Lopez Village. We were featured in the New York Times under the headline “Low-Cost Houses on a High-Price Island.”

All seven of these houses were located on land leased from LCLT. The houses were owned and managed as a limited-equity housing cooperative. Most of the people to whom LCLT wanted to sell these newly built houses did not qualify for a traditional mortgage. Their household income was too low or their credit history was too poor. An officer at Washington Mutual Bank suggested to LCLT that the homeowners should form a cooperative – which they did. After the first successful project at Lopez Village, LCLT has continued to create cooperative housing corporations for every one of its subsequent developments. To date, LCLT has built a total of 40 houses, which are owned and managed by 6 different cooperatives and different sites. In addition to the 40 co-op homes, LCLT manages two rental apartments and some commercial real estate.

The leaseholders for the first seven houses built by LCLT were typical of the population that LCLT has continued to serve. They were singles, couples, parents and children. They included a county employee, a musician/waitress, a museum curator, a massage therapist and mother of three, a working mom, an elder on a fixed income, and a single working woman. They had been living on the island without secure housing, so they had nothing to lose from buying into this unfamiliar form of housing: cooperatively owned houses on leased land. Indeed, the elder who purchased one of LCLT’s first houses had moved seven times during the previous year.

There was considerable turnover on LCLT’s board during the period when LCLT was planning and developing its first project. Almost the entire Board changed within the first year. People with the vision necessary to start the organization were not necessarily the same people who wanted to work on making projects happen. By the third year, the Board of Directors had stabilized.

Another transition occurred within LCLT’s de facto staff. On the morning of the land use hearing which cleared the way for our first project in Lopez Village, our project manager, Rod Morgan, died from AIDS complications. Sandy Bishop, already serving as LCLT’s executive director, took on the duties of project management as well. She led the organization until 1996, when she took a six-year leave to build her own home and to manage projects as a private consultant for other community-based organizations. She returned as LCLT’s executive director in 2001 and continues in that position today.

LCLT’s Board is divided into three categories: resident homeowners/leaseholders; persons representing a more public segment—such as a school superintendent, community business, school board; and local residents who represent the greater community. LCLT tries to keep a balance among the members who serve in each of the three categories. Our bylaws allow for a Board that ranges in size from 5-9 directors.

LCLT has a voting membership of about 200. People are elected to the Board at LCLT’s Annual Meeting during the first quarter of every year. They are either nominated from the floor or nominated by the existing Board. If a vacancy occurs in the interim, the Board appoints someone to fill that seat until an election can take place, at which point that person is either accepted or rejected (rarely rejected) by LCLT’s members.

LCLT engages the people who live in its housing and the larger Lopez community via “fun-raising” as well as fundraising. For example, LCLT has an annual harvest dinner, which is a local foods potluck. An average of 200 people attend and prizes are awarded for best presentation and best use of local foods. Community members approach wealthier people who move onto the island, inviting them to become members of the Board of Directors. This helps to combat stereotypes of the sort of people served by LCLT. Other engagement happens by requiring prospective homeowners to contribute sweat equity during construction, which helps to build self-esteem, prepares them for home maintenance, and creates a deeper appreciation from the greater community.

The organization’s motto is “Unleashing the Power of Community.” For LCLT, that has meant playing major roles in other aspects of community development, not only in affordable housing. LCLT now sees affordable housing, for example, as an incubator for small businesses. Many new businesses on Lopez have arisen from folks living in LCLT housing. LCLT has also taken leadership in the island for sustainable agriculture, energy renewables, and net zero construction, including a pair of intern programs that have been successful for over 20 years.

Our sustainable agriculture internship provides local farmers with extra field hands and with assistance in housing those workers. Agricultural skills, life skills, and a sense of community are thus instilled in the next generation. LCLT only chooses farmers to participate in this program who can teach and work alongside interns, and who believe in building a sustainable community. Our construction interns help LCLT with labor during construction projects for affordable housing, while providing LCLT with insights into the young people of today. We teach construction skills on the job.

As a whole, the residents of Lopez Island are an aging community. LCLT’s intern programs have helped to provide a foundation and encouragement for more young people to make their homes here. Some have started businesses of their own, gotten married, and are raising families. Some have moved into one of LCLT’s housing cooperatives. Most interns remark about their growing sense of being part of a community for the first time in their lives. Our intern program, like the rest of our work, fulfills one of LCLT’s founding purposes: To serve as a model in land stewardship and community development by providing information, resources and expertise.

Narrative contributed by Rhea Miller, 2015

 To learn more about the Lopez Community Land Trust, past and present: