After people have lived on Lopez for a while, they find themselves giving out free advice for how to make the most of life on the island – everything from when to line up for the ferry to where to catch the best Dungeness crab. Well, after my meeting with two amazing women last Friday, I have my own advice to give out: If you want to drive meaningful change on Lopez, just tell Sandy Bishop and Rhea Miller it can’t be done.
In 1989, when Lopez land prices rose 189% in a single year, long-time Lopezians told Sandy and Rhea they couldn’t create affordable housing on the island. As of today, the Lopez Community Land Trust, for which Sandy and Rhea are founding members, has built 4 neighborhoods with 37 households – providing permanently affordable access to quality housing, sustainable agriculture and cottage industries. Under Sandy’s and Rhea’s watch, hundreds of interns have developed valuable life skills, equipping them with the means not only to find meaningful work, but also to become leaders in the community. The LCLT is looked upon as one of the best community land trusts around, which is why they repeatedly win awards like the Home Depot Foundation National Award of Excellence for Affordable Housing Built Responsibly for its Common Ground project, among so many others.
As I’ve biked my way around Lopez to uncover stories for Project 468, so many people have told me I need to meet Sandy and Rhea. I was finally able to spend two hours with them on Friday to hear why they started LCLT on Lopez 25 years ago, along with stories of their challenges and successes along the way. Sandy is originally from Hanford, WA. Rhea, daughter of a rural Methodist minister, grew up on a farm in Iowa. Both have been community activists all their lives and needed a place to “rest” from that work in the 80s. “Rest” is clearly the wrong word; these are two of the hardest working people on Lopez.
LCLT’s intern programs change people’s lives. For example, a few years ago one guy reached out to them from Miami. He was working in a pizza joint and hadn’t been able to break into the construction industry. Rhea told him to get himself to Lopez, as they were starting a project within two weeks. His response was, “Are you for real?” Understandably, that’s a question many people ask given just how much LCLT does for the community. They do way more than affordable housing projects and internships. They manage a seed library for the island. They co-founded the Lopez school garden. They manage a Grain and Bean CSA. And they are a constant source of education, counseling and training for the people of Lopez Island.
More broadly, the LCLT has significantly benefited Lopez Island farmers. The mobile processing unit used by many local farmers was developed by Thomas Forester, Barbara Thomas, Liz Scranton & other folks at LCLT.
The impact of LCLT is far-reaching. One quantifiable example is the energy use of their net-zero-designed affordable housing projects, which is an order of magnitude lower than the national average for U.S. homes. This is made possible by a systems approach to resource use – everything from smart construction methods, rain catchment and the use of solar power, to name just a few.
There is so much to learn from what LCLT is doing, but the biggest learning, according to Sandy and Rhea, is that the Land Trust has become an incubator for business – something that most people probably don’t associate with affordable housing projects. It makes sense, though. When you alleviate one of the biggest financial pressures – the cost of housing – people are freed up to create, experiment and contribute back to the community. That’s exactly what LCLT has enabled Lopezians to do. And to be clear, the LCLT isn’t providing handouts – they are one of the only community land trusts that requires sweat equity from their home owners.
I left my two-hour visit with Sandy and Rhea feeling pretty inspired, not to mention humbled. If you haven’t met them yet, I recommend you do. Go visit – They love to give tours. Just try telling them it can’t be done.