Affordable Housing That Ingenuity Built

Volunteers in Snohomish, Wash., put goodwill to work for the community

FOR rent: 18 one- and two-bedroom apartments overlooking the lush, green flood plain of the Snohomish River, about 30 miles north of Seattle. Some have views of Mt. Rainier looming to the south or of the Olympic Range in the west.

The development sounds like pricey accommodations aimed at yuppies seeking a country lifestyle, but it is actually a nonprofit com-munity effort to create affordable housing, a commodity in short sup-ply here as in many American cities large and small. The units here go for just $250 a month ($295 for two bedrooms), a tribute to the in-genuity and persistence of the Snohomish Affordable Housing Group.

``This is local people helping local people,'' says Newell Dana, a founding father of the nonprofit or-ganization, which formed in 1991 as a follow-up to a food bank that he had started here.

Peter Notehelfer, minis-ter of the Snohomish First Presbyterian Church, says it became clear a few years ago that many residents were struggling financially, while land values were ris-ing fast.

``I know of where there were five families in one home,'' the Rev. Mr. Notehelfer says, referring to people who wanted to remain in the city but could not afford separate housing. Others were living in their automobiles. ``It's been a heart-rending experience.''

When these 18 apartments were finished in May, there were 70 applicants even with no advertising. Ginny Johnsted, a supermarket employee who has a three-year-old son and a five-year-old daughter, had been living with her parents in nearby Marysville, Wash. Now, the single mother is renting a two-bedroom unit here.

``Everything else that I found that was affordable was a three-to- four-year waiting list,'' she says.

Retired individuals occupy four of the apartments, with families in the rest.

No need for public funds

The community leaders who spearheaded the $500,000 project note proudly that it was done with-out government money. The group hopes to build 100 units of affordable housing within the next few years in this community of 6,500 people.

``The quality of life in the whole community is reflected by how you take care of the least fortunate,'' Notehelfer says.

The effort here comes as many Americans are questioning whether overreliance on government is dampening community problem-solving.

Is this example of small-town caring and self-reliance an anomaly that is ill-suited for larger, less cohesive communities? Notehelfer believes the story in Snohomish can be repeated anywhere, given the right leadership.

The minister is one of 21 mem-bers on the affordable-housing group's board, which also has rep-resentatives from accounting, real estate, construction, and banking.

The community pitches in

The new units can be rented so inexpensively because, at every turn, the nonprofit corporation was able to win assistance from the community:

* A farmer sold two parcels of land for just $20,000. The land was poorly situated for agriculture, with a steep bank leading down to a flood plain.

A huge concrete retain-ing wall forms a foundation to perch the building securely above even ``cen-tury'' floods.

* City officials agreed to deed a right-of-way dividing the two plots of land to the project, where a road had been planned.

* Developer Dan Smoots is forgoing profits as general contractor, and other firms have donated materials or done subcon-tracting work at reduced rates.

* The group's board does its work unpaid.

* Board member Bob Bryce, president of First Heritage Bank, made a key loan to the group based on a note of good faith, when the organization had no as-sets to borrow against.

* The project's main financing came from Everett Mutual Bank, which arranged for a $500,000 is-sue of 30-year bonds.

All this means housing that costs just $27,000 a unit, where the local housing authority would typically spend around $70,000 per unit, says Harold Marten, vice president of the nonprofit group.

The Snohomish Housing Authority, acknowledging the value of the effort, guaranteed the bonds. ``It's a great deal for them,'' Mr. Marten says, be-cause even if his group defaulted the agency would get the much-needed housing at a bargain price.

The affordable-housing group calculates that rents will pay for the project in 25 years, and the building should last much longer than that. The income then can go largely toward further projects.

Despite local goodwill that in-cludes $80,000 of individual dona-tions, the progress has not been easy.

``Time after time after time we could have walked away,'' says Wil-lis Tucker, another board member who is a retired county-government official.

But the coalition persevered, and is now moving ahead on a larger effort: a two-building, 42-unit development in the city center. The land was purchased recently for $250,000.

In addition to building housing, ``we want to build ... a sense of community among the people,'' Marten says.

In each unit is a framed depiction of a handshake, and words hand-written in calligraphy: ``This is a house that Love built. We will make it a home.''

``It's not imper-sonal at all the way re doing it,'' Mr. Tucker adds. Government-backed projects, he notes, not only would have cost more but also would have involved lots of red tape and paperwork.

``You don't want government money if you don't have to have it,'' he says.

Marten says he would have liked to have pursued the work in the style of Habitat for Humanity, which builds low-cost houses that are owned rather than rented. But the high land prices here preclude that strategy.

He does point proudly to a letter received from former President Jimmy Carter a year ago that says in part: ``There is a great need for affordable homes throughout the country, and with the help of con-cerned citizens like you we can make this dream a reality.''

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