Housing issues in San Juan County wear on

The Salal neighborhood is the first built by SJC Home Trust and has twelve houses altogether.

In a special meeting July 15, San Juan County Housing Bank Commission continued work on a 2016 plan to answer a question posed to them by the San Juan County Council: are an increase in vacation rentals having an impact on affordable housing availability countywide?

Originally brought up in a  May 12 meeting, the council requested the commission look into county statistics to gather a working plan addressing the critical needs of affordable long-term rentals, affordable home ownership opportunities and affordable seasonal worker housing, according to an HBC memorandum.

Nancy DeVaux, Chairwoman of HBC and executive director of San Juan Community Home Trust, says that the problem of housing availability has been around for years, and that little has been done by the county because of a lack of funds. An affordable housing levy failed to pass by voters in 2006, but did create the HBC. The commission was supposed to oversee where the funds went, but there weren’t any to give out.

“Yes it’s having an impact,” DeVaux says about the vacation rentals. “But we can’t quantify or specifically pinpoint what it is, and instead we’re recommending an update of the needs assessment. There’s all these anecdotes and people saying there’s a crisis, but how many people are really looking for housing, are they looking for rentals, and are they looking for home ownership?”

It’s easy to find anecdotes from renters or landlords of desperate situations. Seasonal renters agreeing to sign a lease without seeing the room, long-term renters paying two months rent out to secure a place, and so on.

On San Juan Island, there are four nonprofits that work on making affordable housing available to residents, but none that assist low income residents with rentals. While Orcas Island has OPAL Community Land Trust that recently took on another rental project, San Juan Island non profits have focused on home ownership, according to DeVaux.

OPAL’s model sets some pricing at market rate values, while others are targeted for very low income people, 50 percent below the median income level, and those in poverty, at 30 percent below the median income level. According to the HBC memo, affordable housing affects residents with an area median income of up to 120 percent and beyond.

“The  need is deep and broad,” said Lisa Byers, executive director at OPAL. “There’s really a bigger need than we can fill.”

OPAL is looking into developing more affordable rentals on Orcas Island, which Byers says will take a few more years.

“There are always people waiting, and we only really have vacancies as long as it takes to clean and do any maintenance,” she said.

According to a first quarter Housing Market Snapshot of the State of Washington, San Juan County ranks the highest on Median Resale Price, at $508,300, and the lowest on Housing Affordability Index (HAI) at 72.8.

“The Housing Affordability Index measures how much of the house a median income person can buy,” DeVaux explained. “Ideally it’s 100 percent, that the median income person can buy the median resale home. We’re the only one below 100 in the whole state. So a family of four that earns median income can only afford 72 percent of the house. So this is kind of a snapshot of the crisis.” Under the category of First-Time HAI, or lower income buyers, that number is at 37.4, again the lowest in the state, behind King County by 30 points.

Funding for the nonprofits working in San Juan County to answer the housing need come from private and public money sources, but for funding for the County is currently absent. An affordable housing levy that would have added a .5 percent excise tax on top of the 1 percent excise tax to the Land Bank was voted down in 2006.

On July 6, the state legislature passed House Bill 2263, which allows counties to vote to add a one tenth of a 1 percent sales tax to address the need of “facilities and services in the community to help people with mental illness, individuals with developmental disabilities, and other vulnerable populations, including foster children, homeless families, veterans, and others in critical need” as well as “provide public and educational benefits and economic support for cultural organizations,” according to the bill. According to DeVaux, they calculated the potential of the tax and found it would come out to be roughly $400,000 a year.

“It’s nothing to sneeze at, but it’s not enough either,” she said. “There’s no money to do anything with. That’s sort of the key.”

This is the first article of two parts looking at the housing crisis in San Juan County. The second article will look at how it is affecting employees and employers locally.