Cory Jelinek was like many potential first-time homeowners: Unsure how she would afford a quality home given her income constraints.

Then she heard about a program from a friend living in Duluth in which a nonprofit buys a parcel of land, builds a home or refurbishes one already on the site and sells it to a low- to moderate-income buyer while retaining ownership of the land.

Hoping to move to Washington County, Jelinek, 28, contacted Two Rivers Community Land Trust, the only such organization in the county.

"Basically, it made me be able to afford something that without them I couldn't," she said. Jelinek moved into her three-bedroom rambler in Oakdale last winter.

The Land Trust, with a $260,000-a-year operating budget, has bought, built, renovated and sold homes in Washington County for eight years now, said executive director Teresa vanderBent.

Conditions created by strict underwriting of mortgages, paired with first-time home-buyer incentives, have led to an uptick in demand for Land Trust homes this year, she said.

In a normal year, Two Rivers sells five to seven homes. In 2010, it is on track to move 10 single-family homes, including two currently being built in the Red Oak Preserve development in Oakdale.

To qualify for the Land Trust program, "the goal is to have a family of four at 80 percent of the median income for the area," VanderBent said. A family of four must make between $35,000 and $64,400 in order to qualify.

Although housing for sale has flooded the market recently, VanderBent said many of the homes are in such poor condition that even if lower-income homeowners can find good deals, they often can't cover the costs of rehabbing.

Two Rivers owns 37 parcels, 34 of which are in Washington County. Eight other land trusts currently work around the state and have a total 620 homeowners, from Duluth to Rochester. Two Rivers also has homes for sale in Cottage Grove and Forest Lake.

Under the Land Trust arrangement, the homeowner "leases" the land; when he or she sells the home, the land remains in the ownership of the trust and the house must be resold to an income-qualified applicant.

The Washington County Housing and Redevelopment Authority has supported the work of Two Rivers since it began, said executive director Barbara Dacy.

Prior to the housing market crash, median and average home sale prices in Washington County were a bit higher than other areas in the metro, she said. "It made sense, and it fit the mission that the HRA board was trying to accomplish, to include the Community Land Trust in their planning."

Jelinek said the best thing about owning the house is just that: It's hers.

The Land Trust required her to take a one-day course on home ownership, she said.

And when she found water in her basement, Jelinek said the Land Trust helped her find someone to repair it.

"I felt like, in a sense, they have me under their wing," she said. "Forever, I'll have that resource."

Emma L. Carew • 651-735-9749