Letters to the Editor

Does San Juan County need a housing authority? Issue will be reviewed Dec. 9

“San Juan County is the least affordable county in the state,” San Juan County’s affordable housing coordinator Angela Lausch told the County Council last week, and she cited housing as the leading reason.

She quoted 2008 figures from WSU’s Washington Center for Real Estate Research that found the median price of homes sold in San Juan County was 25 percent higher and the county’s workers made just half the wages compared to the second-least affordable county – King County.

Lausch ticked off a number of other facts and figures to underline the problem:

-- A San Juan County Economic Development Council report called the high cost of housing the “leading obstacle” businesses face when searching for workers.

-- Unlike other high cost areas in the country, workers here have no time or cost-effective means of commuting from lower cost areas.

-- The 2000 census found only 7.5 percent of the housing stock in San Juan County is in multi-family structures, compared with more than 25 percent statewide. Many rental units that are affordable in the off-season, are not available to workers during the summer season.

Lausch asked the council to consider establishing a Housing Authority which, she said, could provide affordable housing for workers at no cost to county taxpayers. Under Washington law, the County could establish a Housing Authority by adopting a resolution and appointing five commissioners to oversee its operation.

County Councilman Gene Knapp, Orcas East, expressed concern. “This sets up a whole new form of government and it has very extensive powers." Knapp said he was most troubled by the fact that among the powers the Legislature has given housing authorities is eminent domain.

Lausch later said that, so far as she could discover, eminent domain has only been used once by any housing authority in the state, and that involved a single property located in the middle of a large project in Seattle.

As for costs, she said that in the current tough budget times, it could be done with no county tax money at all. “It could be funded completely with grants and, as it develops projects, it will create its own income stream from rent and involvement with state, federal and non-profit housing assistance programs.”

Councilman Bob Myhr, Lopez/Shaw, asked if, rather than setting up a new entity, something similar could be done with an existing local non-profit organization.

“We don’t have a non-profit here who is either able or necessarily interested in developing multi-family housing in the community. It’s not just a lack of interest – it’s organizational capacity issues. Multi-family housing is very different from what the community land trust or Homes for Islanders are doing.”

Council members seemed wary, but still interested. Knapp asked Lausch, “See if it can be enacted without the eminent domain . . . that would be very important from my point of view.”

Lausch will bring the issue back to the council for further discussion on Dec. 9.

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