Creating a ‘street of dreams’ on a budget

Property on 4th Plain corridor renovated using donated materials, volunteers

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

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Southwest Washington Community Land Trust

Americans Building Community

A dilapidated 1940s house slated for razing in the Bagley Downs neighborhood has had a twist of fate as is now the “model” home for creating a so-called “Affordable Street of Dreams” in the blight-plagued Fourth Plain corridor.

“It’s kind of hard to envision it as a model home right now, but I have faith,” said Brian Wolfe, board member of the Southwest Washington Community Land Trust, which owns the house. “It’s more of a model of a concept than an aesthetic.”

The house at 4912 Nicholson Road will model to investors why they should help buy rundown properties that can be renovated with donated materials and volunteers to reduce overhead, said Rose Village resident Mark Maggiora of Americans Building Community, which spearheaded the project. Then, the house would be sold at below-market prices to low-income homebuyers through the land trust.

“Our initial plans were to tear this down and put up nine townhouse units,” Wolfe said. “When the market crashed, we just couldn’t afford to do that. We stumbled along until Mark came along.”

Maggiora and his wife, Patti, founded Americans Building Community, or ABC, in 2008 to show communities how to use existing resources, including individual talents, to clean up and create pride in their neighborhoods. Their focus is bringing volunteers together to revitalize the Fourth Plain corridor, where the couple owns a home in Rose Village. Since ABC’s founding, it has mobilized thousands of volunteers to paint and weatherize homes in Rose Village, Harney Heights and Bagley Downs neighborhoods.

When the land trust’s plan to build townhouse units unraveled, Maggiora saw an opportunity to mobilize the community to both revitalize and bring low-income housing to the neighborhood.

He convinced the land trust to preserve and renovate the existing house with the promise of delivering a volunteer force and donated materials to perform the bulk of the work.

The ranch-style house built in 1948 with wartime shipyard wood is quintessentially Bagley Downs. The central Vancouver neighborhood hosted a World War II housing project known as Bagley Downs, and many of the surviving houses are from that time.

The renovated house will be destined for a low-income homebuyer whose household earns no more than $43,939 per year and who is approved by the land trust. The land trust is still looking for a buyer for the home.

The project’s other purpose is to demonstrate the potential profits investors could reap by investing in affordable housing projects by the land trust. Maggiora said he hopes that will convince investors to buy houses in need of rehabilitation through a limited liability corporation ABC is setting up. Investors would be guaranteed at least a 6 percent return on their investment and would agree to deed each house’s land to the land trust. Any renovations would be performed by volunteers, keeping costs down to ensure the house can be sold below market and investors can still make a profit. The land trust and ABC would focus on the Fourth Plain corridor to help address neighborhood blight in that area and bring Maggiora’s vision of an “Affordable Street of Dreams” a little closer to reality.

Maggiora said the Bagley Downs project has already demonstrated how much money volunteers and donated materials can save.

So far, ABC has mobilized about 250 volunteers and 15 partners to work on the project. Partners include churches and schools that provide volunteer groups, such as the Clark County Skills Center, and business partners that donate supplies and materials, such as Vancouver’s Structures NW LLC. The volunteer force stripped the house to its wooden skeleton and now are filling it in with energy-efficient materials to keep heat in during the winter and heat out during the summer -- everything from plumbing to electrical upgrades

“Basically, it’s an extreme makeover in the renovation arena,” Maggiora said.

ABC and Urban Abundance nonprofit also will mobilize volunteers to plant a community garden on the property to supply food to Clark County Food Bank.

Maggiora’s crew has done work worth $60,000 but has only spent $8,500.

The money to pay for the Nicholson project comes from nearly $100,000 in federal community development block grants intended for creating affordable housing from the City of Vancouver and Clark County. Future projects would rely on investor capital.

The house on Nicholson and any future projects would be sold under a shared equity mortgage to a low-income homebuyer who would pay the land trust a lease fee for the property. The idea behind keeping the land in the trust is to keep the property as affordable housing, if the homeowner ever sells it, and to provide a stream of funding to pay for future affordable housing projects.

A large focus of the Bagley Downs project and future projects is energy-efficient construction. ABC has partnered with Clark County Public Utilities and businesses who sell “green” building products to make the home as energy efficient as possible. Energy efficiency is especially important to low-income homeowners because it significantly impacts monthly energy costs.

“It doesn’t do any good to get people in homes if people can’t afford to live there (because of high energy costs),” said Patrick Sughrue of Structures. Structures donated insulated panels to install between the house’s walls and siding to help keep warm air in during the winter and heat out during the summer.

Maggiora said the Bagley Downs project is a vehicle of neighborhood revitalization not only because it brings a home out of blight but because it fosters home ownership.

“Homeownership has a big effect on the dynamic of neighborhoods,” Maggiora said. “When there is a shift from renters to homeowners, that has a significant shift in community attitude. Homeownership is part of the community development agenda.”