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caption: An artists' rendering of Ecothrive Village, with a conventional house in front and 27 small homes behind
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An artists' rendering of Ecothrive Village, with a conventional house in front and 27 small homes behind
Credit: Ecothrive Housing

In Burien, an unusual affordable housing experiment gains steam

Buying a home is out of reach for most low-income families in the ultra-expensive greater Seattle metro area.

The city of Burien is trying to change that. It's experimenting with tiny cottages, with up to two bedrooms, that families earning less than $50,000 per year can buy.

Denise Henrikson stands in front of a wall covered with brightly painted flags at the Highline Heritage Museum. The flags were collected at countless listening sessions, where Henrickson and other women asked people what they needed to thrive.

As they painted their flags, people said they didn’t need much — food, shelter, maybe a bedroom for their kids.

“We were so inspired by hearing those stories that we formed a team, and a plan, and we’re now building an affordable cottage village at Boulevard Park in North Burien,” Henrikson says.

caption: Denise Henriksonstands in front of a wall of painted flags created during Ecothrive Housing's many listening sessions. The flags are currently on display at the Highline Heritage Museum
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Denise Henriksonstands in front of a wall of painted flags created during Ecothrive Housing's many listening sessions. The flags are currently on display at the Highline Heritage Museum
Credit: KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

In the world of affordable housing, the status quo looks something like a big apartment building, full of rentals — and those serve a vital need. But much of the generational wealth in this country has been built through home ownership.

Henrikson's team, who call themselves "Ecothrive Housing," aimed to solve that problem. They became a community land trust, so that they could purchase land with the intent to protect homeowners from the high cost of land.

Community land trusts are attracting new interest throughout the region. They differ from corporate property owners like a credit union differs from a commercial bank. On this project, the community land trust's participation will ensure the homes remain permanently affordable.

RELATED: Sound it Out: what is a community land trust?

In addition to that, the development will be cooperatively owned through something called a "limited equity cooperative."

Technically, residents will own shares in the project. If they sell their shares later, they can use that money to help them buy another place.

The Ecothrive Village project almost didn’t happen. But in late October, the Burien City Council extended the window for affordable housing experiments like the project to get their paperwork in.

caption: Burien City Councilmember Hugo Garcia
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Burien City Councilmember Hugo Garcia
Credit: KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

City Councilmember Hugo Garcia says he's glad the project appears to be moving forward. He says over the years, Burien has become more diverse, offering affordability for people priced out of other places in the region.

But now, he's seeing high prices force people out of Burien, too. So the need for a wider range of affordable housing in Burien has grown intense.

“We need to be more proactive about seeing what works and doesn’t work,” he says.

Ecothrive Housing's women-led team hopes to close on its Burien property in February. Getting the thing built will take much longer, though.

After it's done, Denise Henrikson says she hopes the experiment can be tried in other cities, in areas currently zoned to allow only low-density developments.

“We’re committed to this. Like, there is nothing that’s going to stop us,” she says.