Innovation, flexibility key lessons learned in Langley affordable housing project

Jerene

Langley’s newest permanently affordable housing is set to receive its final plat approval next week.

The city’s planning director said he would recommend green-lighting the 16-lot development, Upper Langley, at the Langley City Council meeting Monday, the final step before lots can be sold and homes built. One home, allowed by city code, is already being constructed by owners Chris and Christy Korrow, one of the development partners.

The project was lauded by Langley leaders and the first-time developers.

“I think it’s a fantastic model for what cities all over could do,” said Councilwoman Rene Neff, who was on the council when the ordinance allowing for such a project was passed. “I’m really proud that they have chosen Langley to do this project because it’s very unusual and a great model to get affordable housing.”

Developers as a term may be a bit much for the self-described “ragamuffin” seven people who set out to create an intentional community of small homes in a rural setting in a city. There’s Jerene, who only goes by that name and was an educator; Roger Bennett, a nurse and jazz drummer and his wife Emma; retired snowplow driver Dane Bennett, master gardener Cary Peterson, the writer-editor Christy Korrow and farmer-filmmaker Chris Korrow. Hardly the usual suspects when talking about clearing land to make way for new homes.

Likewise, several unusual aspects were involved in this subdivision. The four property developers — the Korrows, the Bennetts, Peterson and Jerene — owned the 10-acre area on Al Anderson Road across from the Langley-Woodmen Cemetery. They had a goal to create an intentional community and affordable housing, but needed to find ways to keep building costs down. That’s where regulatory flexibility became necessary.

Homes are capped at 975 square feet on a 2,000-square-foot lot. Depending on the design, that can look any number of ways. For the Korrows, it means a one-bedroom, one-bathroom home that has a guest room, a kitchen, a living room, and a couple of lofted offices.

“If you want a bigger house, you have to pay for a bigger house,” Peterson said when discussing the lot costs during a recent visit to the property this week.

Certain standard development requirements were waived or deferred. Some of the major ones were not needing to extend the water line the length of the property, forgoing paved roads and lowering the amount of parking spaces provided from two cars per lot to about one and a quarter. Water and sewer hookup fees are 75 percent of the normal cost, per the city’s cottage housing ordinance rates.

“It’s like a cake that can add more costs or reduce costs,” interim Director of Community Planning Jack Lynch said of all the regulatory flexibility that was included in the ordinance and part of the project.

Despite a generally amicable relationship, there were times when persistence was required of the Upper Langley development partners. Christy Korrow, one of the partners, described it as being against the very nature of a planning official whose job is to ensure codes are met and rules followed.

“There were a lot of times where we had to really push what we were asking for,” Korrow said.


“A lot of what it came down to was trusting the intentions of what we were doing, having the human relationship that was positive,” she added. “We had that.”

So far, only the home of Korrow and her husband, Chris, is being built, per city code. Others will soon join. The four first-time developers each have lots, and eight others made commitments to buy, leaving only four available for sale.

Upper Langley is an affordable housing community. Korrow made a point of clarifying that it was affordable — not low-income —housing. One of the rules for interested buyers is that they have an income no more than 120 percent of the Island County median income, about $70,000.

Lots, not including home construction costs, are sold at $60,000 per lot for middle income or less buyers. An additional $15,000 gets deposited into an account to build a “common house,” solar energy and other shared amenities for the development.

The median sale price for homes, excluding condos, in the Langley ZIP code in the past year was $384,500.

“We’re affordable in the context of Langley.”

Keeping them affordable is a deed covenant among all homeowners of Upper Langley. They agree to a sale price formula that includes the amount paid for the land, the $15,000 community amenities fee, the appraised value of the home (excluding the land), and an appreciation of 1.5 percent per year for the first 10 years, then 2 percent the next 10 years, and another 2.5 percent each year thereafter.

Agreeing to such a development meant the city lost out on possible property tax value. Those taxes go toward the city’s budget each year. Making that deal was a net positive for Langley, Neff said.

“It’s so we can keep regular young people and families in our community, otherwise they’re priced out,” she said. “Yes, we give up tax value, but we keep forests that everyone can enjoy and utilize.”

Neff and other city leaders, such as Lynch, think some of the elements of Upper Langley’s project can be replicated elsewhere in the city. Upper Langley breaks the mold of cheap urban housing, typically in the form of apartment complexes. The general idea to make living space affordable is to put a lot of people in a small footprint, so building vertically is the usual blueprint.

In seeking flexibility, Upper Langley blazed a new path to affordable housing in the city.

“That means if there’s a real estate bubble, your house isn’t going to go with that bubble,” Korrow said.

The developers were more cautious in their project’s ability to be replicated. They already owned that property and weren’t building the housing as a means of making a profit. Korrow said it’d be difficult for a typical developer because of a desire to see a return on investment in purchasing the property and installing utilities. But opening up the size restriction and some other regulations could make it more profitable.

“Our project was unique because the property was already owned by the four developers,” Korrow said. “There’s no mortgage on the property. And we weren’t profit-driven. We wanted to create the community we wanted to live in.”

Upper Langley still has four lots available. There will be an open house at the property from 10 a.m. to noon Sunday, Feb. 28.

The mayor invited the developers to attend the council meeting and speak about the project in concordance with the final plat approval.