Almost half of the population cannot afford to live in most island homes | Comprehensive Plan

There’s a housing crisis in San Juan County and county staff has proof.

On Monday, Oct. 16, the county’s community development employees presented a draft report to council, analyzing the affordability and current count of island housing units.

The draft, which is part of the comprehensive plan update, concluded that the county needs at least 1,524 additional units to house the county’s population projection of roughly 3,000 more residents in 2036. That includes 1,097 houses to own and 428 to rent.

The draft report also determined that another 853 units are needed for seasonal homes.


Many islanders cannot afford to reside in the county. In fact, the presentation reported that about half of the county residents cannot afford to live in nearly 80 percent of the county’s total houses. This includes homes that are not currently on the market.

According to the presentation, islanders earning less than $50,000 a year can only afford to purchase about 18 percent of the houses in the county. About 45 percent of the county earns those wages, annually.

The majority of houses are affordable for those who earn between $75,000 and $149,000 a year, which accounts for about 25 percent of the population.

Affordable housing is defined by the county as equaling no more than 30 percent of an occupant’s gross monthly income. This includes housing costs, as well as property taxes, insurance and utilities, except for phones.

Even those earning $50,000 to $74,999 a year don’t always live in housing that is affordable for their income. According to the presentation, 37 percent of those in that income bracket paid over the county’s limits for affordable housing in 2015. A whopping 78 percent of those earning less than $20,000 were in the same boat.

That year, a total of 3,100 households were not residing in affordable housing, according to the county’s definition; staff projects another roughly 600 will be added in 2036 if trends continue.

Councilman Jamie Stephens noted the difficulty in finding island jobs to earn those high wages.

“It’s very depressing,” he said. “To get to that $75,000, we’re talking $37.50 an hour, or $18 for dual income, which doesn’t even hit two starting teachers.”

According to the presentation, households earning the median income in the county, of $67,600, cannot always afford the county’s median-priced homes at $453,000. It is even more difficult for those purchasing their first houses, according to San Juan County Affordable Housing Coordinator Ryan Page.

“Even if [households] had an income high enough to support a mortgage on a median-priced home, the down payment that would be required for a $453,000 home is usually out of the grasp of the first-time homebuyer,” he said.

This, coupled with the lack of multi-family homes, said Page, affects the number of families living on the islands and possibly contributes to declining school enrollments.

Seasonal houses

Although anecdotally islanders have noted the difficulty in finding housing, the draft report showed there are enough units in the county for the population.

“If you looked at the total number of units in the county and the total population, you would say, ‘wow we have plenty of housing…what’s the problem?’” said Page.

The problem, he said, is seasonal homes. According to the presentation, the most recent data shows there are 13,619 county housing units, which is enough for today’s population of 16,314. That’s accounts for one housing unit for every 1.2 fulltime residents. However, of the 3,561 new housing units created between 2000 and 2010, 56 percent were occupied only seasonally, and not fulltime.

Seasonal homes, not vacation rentals, are causing the housing shortage, said Page.

He reiterated a county report from last March which states that 46 percent of the county’s housing stock is not lived in, year-round; 7 percent are vacation rentals, while 36 percent are seasonal homes.

“The issue isn’t really vacation rentals; there’s been a decline in development, overall,” he said.

Vacation rental permits have been issued, steadily, since around 1998, he said, but the development of new housing units significantly dropped around 2006. From 2005 to 2010, about five new housing units were created for every vacation rental permit issued per year. However, from 2011 to 2016, there were about two new units built for every vacation rental permit issued per year.

Watch the presentation at and view the draft report below.

Rental crisis?

Rentals aren’t immune to the housing crisis.

According to county staff, for those earning $50,000 or less, there is one affordable rental for about every two households. A quarter of the county’s rental stock is $1,250 a month or more. About 16 percent of the county is renter-occupied, compared to 34 percent of the state.

What do you think?

To comment on this draft report, send specifics to or drop them off at the community development department’s office at 935 Rhone Street in Friday Harbor. Mail them to SJC Department of Community Development Attn: Linda Kuller: “Housing Needs Assessment,” PO Box 947, Friday Harbor, WA 98250.

Draft Housing Needs Assessment


Contributed image/San Juan County San Juan County staff defines affordable housing as equaling no more than 30 percent of an occupant’s gross monthly income. For instance, 78 percent of those making less than $20,000 in 2015 paid 30 percent or more of their gross monthly income on housing.

Contributed image/San Juan County This table shows the number of homes that are affordable based on county residents’ incomes.

Contributed image/San Juan County This table shows the housing stock in the county as a whole and on the individual islands of San Juan, Orcas and Lopez.