The hope-builders

Developers provide affordable housing with quality materials and interesting architectural features

September 28, 2005

Diana Sizemore strolls down Katie’s Way with her dog and checks out the little village that is springing up along the roadway.

She has gotten her name added to the long list of potential buyers and is hopeful of being a homeowner herself one day. Without some sort of price break, Sizemore, 29, said the American Dream seems illusory at best. Especially in a city where the average home now sells for $229,921.

“It’s really great to have this opportunity in a town where it’s becoming so expensive to buy a house,” said Sizemore.

Nearby, Hood River developers Mike Kitts and Greg Crafts inspect some of the partially finished structures in the new subdivision to the west of 13th Street and Montello Avenue. They have built 12 of the 24 houses and already have 50 people wanting to move in.

“They are all sold before they are done and we don’t do any kind of advertising at all. It’s all by word of mouth,” said Kitts.

The average size of a two-bedroom, two-bath structure built by Affordable Housing of the Columbia Gorge, LLC, owned by Kitts and Crafts, is 1,200 square feet on a 2,000 square foot lot. The average sale price ranges from $160,000-$185,000 – well below the current market value of most new residences.

Crafts and Kitts teamed up together seven years ago to provide homes for singles and middle-income couples who would not qualify for a high mortgage payment. But purchasing land cheaply enough to keep their costs down is becoming more problematic in a city that is growing fast and attracting wealthier residents.

“You can’t have an affordable house if you start with an $80,000 lot. Our challenge has been to find land for our project,” said Crafts.

One of his primary roles in the partnership is to save costs on projects – without cutting quality. Kitts is responsible to bring the “common sense” design plans to reality. Both men are willing to reduce their profit margin by thousands in order to aid their fellow citizens.

“How much money do you need to make anyway? We’re really trying to get people into these homes who are committed to Hood River,” said Kitts.

“We’re doing our best to do the right thing,” said Crafts. “The point is, how much is enough? How greedy do you have to be?”

They contend that the willingness of Hood River city planners Jennifer Donnelly and Cindy Walbridge to find workable solutions to challenges inherent with developing a small parcel of land has contributed largely to their success. Eliminating a lot of bureaucratic costs and time delays, said Kitts, can save thousands of dollars in overhead expenses.

“It works because city planning has been very helpful and encouraging,” he said.

“This community has been very generous to Mike and I so we’d like to give something back,” said Crafts.

The strategy used by Affordable Housing is simple: Arrange small lots around a shared common area to maximize green space. Then turn the project into an educational experience for school children by involving them in restoration of natural vegetation. Along Katie’s Way and Andy’s Way, (named for Crafts’ children) Students of Hood River Middle School are replanting the embankment above Adams Creek, which formerly flowed through a culvert.

“We build high density developments that don’t make people feel like they are living on top of each other,” said Kitts.

Jim Thornton is helping with the trail-building project in the small ravine to the rear of his new home. Thornton, who works for the U.S. Forest Service, envisions children performing aquatic studies along the waterway and getting a hands-on environmental education.

“I think this is about more than just affordable housing. I think there’s a big social aspect to this development. There should be a collaborative effort among the community to continue with that vision,” said Thornton, a first-time homeowner.

He said having the privilege of buying property in April has been a “good thing emotionally.”

“It’s very comforting. It’s more than just owning a home — it’s being a part of the community,” he said. “I’m stoked, I’m totally stoked. I’ve got a green house, which is my favorite color, and I’m Irish. How much better could it get?”

What he and other buyers will never know, said Crafts, is how Kitts “agonizes” over the placement of every window and balcony to ensure their privacy. Some houses have garages and some do not, some are three stories and some only two. But all have 9-foot vaulted ceilings and are painted in cheery colors with little gas fireplaces or stoves in the open living rooms.

There are no curbs, sidewalks or street signs along the private roadways of planned unit developments. And there isn’t much of a yard, which Kitts and Crafts believe is a plus for many busy professionals. But there are plenty of interesting architectural elements incorporated into the construction, and all building materials are durable and environmentally friendly.

For example, the kitchen cupboards are crafted from maple and the flooring from bamboo. The interior doors are solid pine and sometimes the carpets are wool, if the price is right, but otherwise manufactured from nontoxic fibers. There is no particle board between the siding and the sheetrock; only standard plywood will do for Kitts. In fact, Affordable Housing has built up a reputation for taking no shortcuts to provide structures that will have little maintenance needs for years to come.

“We built them inexpensively using simple designs but solid construction,” said Crafts.

He said another project undertaken along Eugene Street two years ago was even tighter on available land space – but truly has created a neighborhood. The six residents have become friends and now get together regularly for barbecues and other events. Kitts and Crafts greatly enjoy strolling by the houses nestled off the roadway and seeing the brightly colored flowers and decorative garden art.

“It does my heart good to see people move into these houses and care about them,” said Kitts.

Sharla Weber, one of the Eugene Street residents, said the open courtyard entrance has encouraged sociability. She said even though the people who moved there were an “eclectic group” with varied careers, they all watch for one another.

“We have all gotten to know each other very well and we help each other out. It’s more of a community feeling than I’ve ever experienced in my life. It’s kind of like having roomates, except we all have privacy,” she said.

Crafts does most of the screening for new buyers while Kitts works at giving them something to move into. The criteria is also simple: The houses cannot be used as rentals and are only available to people who cannot financially qualify for a typical home. In the past they have had people buy one of their dwellings and then immediately turn around and sell it for an instant profit – which defeated their purpose.

To ward off future problems they now retain the first right to purchase any home that is sold in the first four years of ownership. And the price they pay is the original cost plus a 3.5 percent equity increase.

“A lot of people that we sell to were looking at manufactured homes and didn’t think that they had any other option,” said Crafts.

Julie O’Shea, formerly Davies, is one of the lucky buyers along Katie’s Way. She moved in last October and has been delighted with the cottage look of her new home.

“I am just really thankful and appreciative of the opportunity. I just love this house; it is so nice – I just can’t believe it’s affordable housing,” she said.

In fact, O’Shea married fiance Sean in August and even her 60 family members arriving from out of town for the ceremony were amazed at the quality of construction. She said they expected something similar to “the projects” in a major city.

“They got here and were just blown away at how cute these houses were. There is just so much thought put into them,” said O’Shea. “Both of these guys are just amazing. I think people really take for granted sometimes what they are doing for the community.”

She said if young people cannot afford to remain in Hood River to start new businesses or replace retiring workers, then the future of the area seems bleak. She said that developments such as those provided by Kitts and Crafts are essential to the economic health and vitality of the city.

“The strength of all communities is the young people and we need to give them somewhere to live,” she said.

But that might be getting harder for Kitts and Crafts to do in the future. Because Crafts uses his earnings from a career in Microsoft to fund the developments, they are able to keep the overhead low. But as the price of land rises in Hood River, so do their construction costs.

In an ideal world, they would like to see the city buy land and “bank” it for use in affordable housing developments. But, with the municipal budget in the red, they are unsure how that can be accomplished at any time in the near future.

So, they continue to scout for another patch of affordable earth that can be turned into another quaint neighborhood.

“Give us some land to work with and we’ll build a community,” Kitts said.

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