Panel seeks to quantify county-wide housing crisis

The League of Women Voters panel discussion “Gimme Shelter” delved into the affordable housing issue in San Juan County and tried to answer some lingering questions: Is there a crisis here in the county? What is the risk to the community if we don’t solve the crisis? What factors make this issue so difficult to resolve?

More than 50 people attended the event Sept. 21, which featured affordable housing advocates from the community on the panel and in the audience. Sarah Crosby, program chair of League of Women Voters opened the panel and mentioned employee difficulty with finding housing, as well as anecdotal evidence of a crisis as a few reasons why the panel was formed.

Greg Winters, director of the Homeless Services Center of the Opportunity Council in Bellingham and leader of that agency’s community needs assessment for San Juan and other counties, began the panel by giving some statistics from the Washington State Housing Needs Assessment for the county in 2015.

One statistic stated that 85 percent of the 200 subsidized affordable housing units in the county will expire by 2017. Winters also discussed the fundamental aspect of affordable housing in a community, comparing it to other cornerstones such as roads and utilities to ensure a thriving, healthy community.

Nancy DeVaux spoke to the audience as chair of the Housing Bank Commission. She stated that the county had not done a housing needs assessment since 2009, and gave a review of the workings of the commission. The commission distributed $70,000 for senior and disabled rental assistance, and $6,000 for emergency rental assistance grant county-wide in 2015.

“So it’s not a lot of money overall in terms of what is available to help with the affordable housing problem,” DeVaux said. “It’s a definite help, but when it comes to building affordable housing, it doesn’t provide major assistance.”

DeVaux said the commission has requested the county council look into options of local funding, as well as all other possible options. DeVaux mentioned house bill 2263 which could be implemented locally to create a sales tax of 1/10th of 1 percent that could bring in $400,000 annually.

Justin Roche, executive director of Homes for Islanders, explained sweat equity and how as an organization they differ from San Juan Island Home Trust.

Lisa Byers, executive director of OPAL Community Land Trust gave some interesting quantitative numbers to try to answer the questions posed by the League. According to Byers, 5 percent of year-round Orcas Island residents live in Community Land Trust homes. OPAL did a survey of their residents to get a sense of where they worked, which connected to the anecdotal stories of employers being unable to find employees due to inadequate affordable housing. Out of their 130 homes, individuals work in 60 different businesses and have 170 jobs.

Another helpful number was median age. In Washington the median age is 35; in San Juan County it is 55. For OPAL residents, the median age is 31.

“Why has it been so difficult to resolve this issue?” Byers asked. “I think that one of the reasons is it’s hard for the people who don’t have a need for housing or who are not directly impacted by it to understand that it’s an issue.”

Byers said that the median age difference is one component to the issue, but so is the population of part-time residents who live on the island.

“I’m being grossly stereotypical here, so please forgive me — but I know individuals for whom this is true, they come here to get away from the world’s problems, and don’t want to be reminded that in fact we have all the same issues here that they have back wherever they have their other home,” Byers said.

Byers also spoke about ways to assist affordable housing initiatives in the county.

The panel closed with a period of question and answer. To view the recording search Affordable Housing in San Juan County on YouTube. For more information read Susan Mathews’ submission on page 9 about the recently published Community Needs Assessment.