A quick and amazing affordable housing solution

   My lovely village and island is in a fight for it’s funky life in this insane financialization of real estate so that where I live is someone else’s asset class – and they have ten times the wealth I sit on.

Essential workers are slowly and now rapidly priced out of where I live. Those lucky enough to arrive when it was affordable are aging out of their professions, and replacements are at a tickle because all land, all housing, is scampering out of reach. Teachers, postal workers, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, arborists, nurses, wait staff, shopkeepers, ferry workers, handymen – where are they?

Enter the evil outsider!

A developer on the edge of my town got a large acreage he owns incorporated into the village and has been trying to build a neighborhood on it for over a dozen years. The towns people don’t want it. They don’t trust the developer for historical reasons, even though he’s working with one of our best loved architects. But also, it’s full-on NIMBY dressed up as serious concerns for health and safety and such. All objections could be resolved if all were intent on making the best, most eco, most affordable and just and intergenerational neighborhood possible.

The debate over this development, called the Coles Valley Neighborhood, heated up on Next Door. I’ve learned that repetition is the mother of intention, and that it takes 3 repetitions for anything to be heard and perhaps a factor of 100 for it to be “what everybody knows.” I wrote the below as my investment in the necessary 100 repetitions. Perhaps you have a similar situation. Perhaps these points will help you.

You’ll also see that new construction is, in my view, only part of the picture. We need to covert un- and under-utilized spaces in what’s already built, plumbed, wired and sewer connected if we have any hope in hell of keeping our essential workers on our island. A neighboring town, Port Townsend, is doing a bang up job of selling this idea.

Dear NextDoor
from Vicki Robin

What if the Coles Valley Neighborhood is an opportunity, not a travesty? I’m a ‘what if’ person. I see possibilities. Stick with me as I lay them out, along with some of the objections I’ve heard.

  1. Know that I am just a homeowner in Langley. I’m not a builder. I’m not on city council. I’m a citizen. But I’m also creative and entrepreneurial and this CV debate seems ripe for creative thinking.
  2. Greedy developers? Duh? Who among us in this capitalist country isn’t primed to get top dollar? If that’s greed, we are all in it. Whatever the motivations of the developers, let’s look at the possibilities CV offers us.
  3. History: Much bad blood between the community and the developers going back decades. This may be affecting some long time residents view of the project. Understood. Had I lived here then, I might feel the same.
  1. The property was annexed to the city to permit density of development. That’s a done deal. It’s a democracy. We surely can undo it – or perhaps abort it as the community did nearly 20 years ago.
  1. The smell from the sewer treatment plant? Ugh. I haven’t smelled it but presume the people on Inglewood and Overlook would, as on warm days the air would sweep up the embankment. Do you smell it?
  1. Water. The fear seems to be that it will overtax our wells and water table. What if water were managed on the property to benefit the city? How so? What if the water from your shower was filtered and used to flush your toilet? What if the water from your dishwasher were filtered and used to water your lawn and shrubs? What if the water from your roof went into a cistern and were treated for drinking? What if this kept water out of the treatment plant, reducing the cost of increasing capacity. All this is possible with new neighborhoods with enough density to make such infrastructure affordable.
  1. Property taxes? What if another 120 homes, or whatever the number will be, will spread the cost of city and county infrastructure and services among more homes, lowering costs?
  1. Property values? Would they decrease with this new development, or increase? We don’t know.
  1. Energy use? Here’s where CV could be really cool (as in wonderful and temperature controlled) and maybe it doesn’t impact you, but maybe it inspires you to get ahead of the big changes coming due to warmer winters, less snow pack, dryer hotter summers and a global requirement that our use of fossil fuels drops down to net zero in a short 30 years. This one shocked me awake. Whoa. Gas stoves. Gas furnaces. Gas washers and dryers. Yikes. There will surely be incentives to switch to electric and penalties (cost) for sticking with the old systems. All of us need to keep an eye out for how to transition economically. Homes in CV could get ahead of that curve, and perhaps make it easier for all of us to switch. Every residence could have a heat pump instead of furnaces or baseboard heaters. Could have on demand hot water instead of huge hot water tanks. Could have super insulation and triple pane windows to hold in heat in winter and hold out heat in summer. Could have induction stoves (more efficient). Could have energy efficient refrigerators. Let’s have the council set building codes to reward energy efficiency. And these rewards could go to all homeowners.
  2. Solar panels? There might not be enough solar capacity on the CV property but oh those roofs at the waste treatment plant, with full south exposure. What if a micro-grid powered CV? I have no idea if this is feasible. I’m just saying when you switch to possibility thinking you see opportunities like this.
  1. Ugly? My home backs up on the Highlands. When I moved in there was one large brown house behind me. Then the building began. I was a powerless NIMBY. It was happening in my back yard! The land behind my house was scraped with a few trees preserved. The houses were bare of vegetation. Just wait, I was told. The landscaping went in. Flowering trees and shrubs. It’s actually quite pretty. And I’ve gotten used to it.
  1. Traffic on Coles Road? Yes, I can see the concern. When the highlands went it, we were afraid of losing a favorite walking road to incessant traffic, but that hasn’t happened. Traffic is actually minimal. If CV triggers a traffic light at the intersection of Coles and 525, that could be a benefit, as traffic backs up for left turns because there isn’t a left turn lane or lights. Plus a big benefit of 120 +/- homes? Island Transit may create a circulator bus – perhaps electric – that picks up and drops off people in the city, from Talking Circle to CV to Saratoga Road to Edgecliff/ Furman/ Decker. Imagine getting into Langley and home again with no parking, no gas expense, with the bus running hourly

As they say in permaculture, “the problem is the solution” meaning what looks like a problem might be an opportunity for something better. The very density of CV could trigger more services.

12. Affordability? Upper Langley worked with the city to keep their development affordable, and not yummy prey for real estate investors; CV can learn from them. There can also be creative HOA rules that have a stiff fee for not owner-occupied homes (second homes, vacation rentals). Imagine these types of homes. A tiny home pocket neighborhood (houses under 400 square feet) with a picnic shelter and shared lawn. And then a town house row, well designed so everyone has a balcony and a view and 800 square feet of living space. And then dotted with homes that are 1500 SF maximum, sufficient for families. And then a few larger homes, perhaps with attached Mother-in-Law apartments for aging relatives or live-in caregivers or teenagers wanting a bit of autonomy.

  1. All the units gobbled up by the elderly? Wheel Estate and Creekside Terrace have age requirements. As does Brookhaven. With a median age in Langley around 60, could there be an age covenant at CV – perhaps that the median age remains at 40 so for every 70-year-old there needs to be a 5-year-old. That sounds a bit strange, but you get the idea.
  2. Village life. What if, with more residents would make our town livelier, with more shops and services. With demand, would we get our drugstore back? Our hardware store? Would we get more services like a bike repair shop? Would we get a greater variety of entertainment – a pool hall? Or dance hall? Or meeting hall? What if we had more international cuisine? And what if we can have these benefits of greater density without densifying the village core?
  3. And here’s a left field idea for those who don’t want the CVN. I have a MIL apartment on the ground floor of my home that I have rented to a dozen or so people over the 13 years I’ve been here. I’ve also housed, shorter term, my guest room to creative people here to write or act or heal. I am a one-woman affordable housing maven in an 1850 SF house. Consider renting a room in your house. Or transferring the stuff in your garage to a shed and converting that. Or making your house into a duplex. My tenants, almost to the person, have added to my quality of life. This is the quickest path to affordable rentals, even though it doesn’t solve the problem long term.
  4. I am no expert on codes and zoning and costs; all these dreams might not come true, but if we say yes to dreams rather than no to anything we fear, we will come out ahead. I guarantee that. There’s a lot of fear floating around right now in this country. We are not safer just by saying no. Langley is part of the larger whole and the waves of change will come. Best to get on our surf boards.

 

 

 

 

3 Comments

  1. Thanks, Vicki – lots of good ideas and questions in here, and most especially the invitation to reframe into the possibilities and how best to leverage them.

    Barbara Schaetti
  2. Nicely written Vicki. This is where there is incredible potential to corral community to shift from problems to potential.

    It’s odd that those opposed to Cole’s Valley don’t want change, yet fail to recognize the change happening under foot regardless. If they do then they seem completely apathetic towards the larger systems at play.

    It’s been painful to watch public meetings about this development when some of the most vocal local leadership claim they deeply care about affordability, yet are actively undermining efforts to help provide permanently affordable homes in the community.

    Would it be better if this neighborhood was closer to town? Absolutely. No one is arguing that, but this is the last large opportunity Langley has to actually move the needle to help ensure the viability and vitality of the town. Property values will continue to climb and only those with the means to have their second or third home in a destination spot on Whidbey will be buying them.

    Neal Collins

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