Innovative solutions needed for county’s longtime affordable housing crisis

Some say vacation rentals are responsible for the county’s lack of affordable housing; others say second homes or low wages for island jobs are the culprits. At the March 13 affordable housing forum, held by the League of Women Voters of the San Juans, it seemed all of those and more are creating an imbalance.

“I personally think there’s not one cause; there are many and there’s not one solution; there are many,” said County Councilman Rick Hughes.

The problem, added Mark Tompkins, director of San Juan County Health and Community Services, is a “lack of accessible and affordable housing.”

“If you look at total housing units per population, it’s almost one housing unit per individual. However, we know that’s not necessarily true,” Tompkins said.

Due to the fact that there is a high percentage of vacant houses, not every resident on the island has his or her own housing unit.

According to the U.S. Census, presented Tompkins, the county’s 15,956 residents live in 13,619 housing units. Vacant and seasonally occupied homes account for roughly 43 percent of county housing, or 5,911 units. Vacation rentals account for seven percent of those while the rest are mainly vacation homes.

According to the U.S. Census, said Tompkins, the county’s homeowner vacancy rate is 3.8 percent, while the renter vacancy rate is 8.7.

“The outside pressure from markets in areas of our state where people can afford to come here and buy homes; that’s what’s driving prices up,” said Director of Community Development Erika Shook. “I’m not sure there’s a lot we can do about it.”

Shook explained that building on a rural island is expensive by nature, due to issues like limited land and expensive installations of septic systems and wells.

Plus, said Hughes, county building projects often don’t fit requirements for the Washington State Housing Trust Fund (which provides affordable housing) and are geared more towards urban areas than rural – though he hopes to work with state legislature to change that.

Then there’s the state’s Growth Management Act, which concentrates density in areas that are already populated. These include incorporated towns (Friday Harbor) and what the act calls Urban Growth Areas (Eastsound and Lopez Village), which have population counts similar to towns, but aren’t actually incorporated. It would be more affordable for builders to add 20 homes to an area, as opposed to five, said Shook, but right now, they can’t because of the GMA.

“It’s been litigated extensively in the county on our densities,” said Shook of the county’s comprehensive plan’s compliance with GMA regulations. “People in the community who didn’t want to see any additional growth, fighting people who did. This community needs to come together and be able to come up with solutions everyone can support.”

Shook said she has already received complaints on the comprehensive plan update, slated to be completed by 2018, that the county is at its maximum capacity in certain areas.

“In the summer, we’ve reached capacity, haven’t we?” echoed Friday Harbor Mayor Carrie Lacher about the high influx of town visitors in peak months.

She added that the affordable housing crisis has endured for so long, she can no longer provide solutions.

“I honestly don’t have anything else to offer,” she said. “If just building houses would fix the problem, then wouldn’t we have fixed the problem? It’s a way more complicated issue than putting up structures.”

Since 2005, Lacher said 130 affordable homes, or about 10 percent of the town’s housing stock, were added, but yet the problem persists.

Lacher should know; she was one of the first homebuyers in San Juan Island’s first permanently affordable housing neighborhood after she was left homeless from a failed relationship. She shared with the roughly 66-person audience at the San Juan Island Grange that she couldn’t afford to develop or purchase land at that time.

A recent online search by Tompkins found roughly 10 county houses for sale under $300,000. Tompkins gave data from the University of Washington’s Runstad Center for Real Estate that the median county house price is $434,400 and the median family income is $66,800. The center’s affordability index also shows the average county income can’t support the average county home.

“We are the least affordable in the state; we’re worse than Seattle in King County,” he said, adding that the county’s median house price is second only to King.

Hughes, who owns Ray’s Pharmacy and General Store on Orcas, urged county businesses to offer livable wages, benefits and even employee housing. At Hughes’s pharmacy, full-time workers earn $15 an hour and a pharmacist lives on Hughes’ property nearby.

The county, he said, has already set aside $100,000 from the state tax lodging tax for hotels, bed and breakfasts and vacation rentals to possibly purchase land or build short-term housing for employees of tourist-related businesses. Anecdotal evidence, said Tompkins, shows businesses often suffer from lack of hiring options from employees unable to find shelter.

Maybe, said Hughes, there could be a public-private partnership, where the county purchases land, builds infrastructures and leases property out, like it’s doing for the recycling center Orcas Island Exchange.

Maybe, he continued, UGA land-use designation could be changed in the comprehensive plan update to allow tiny house communities with shared showers and kitchens. Creative input from citizens is needed, he urged.

“It really needs to be unique and outside the box,” added Lacher.

She listed Homes for Islanders – the USDA-funded nonprofit builder – as an example of an innovative solution that already exists on island.

Lacher was at the two-day affordable housing workgroup in 2007, when the county brought a consultant from Nantucket, to compare the accelerated growth in the Massachusetts town to San Juan County.

“It was a great kumbaya moment,” said Lacher. “We were going to do great things for affordable housing, we came up with a work plan.”

Yet, ideas generated from the plan never came to fruition, she recalled, partly due to the recession that followed soon after.

The Turn Point–Pear Point connector road to continue San Juan Community Home Trust’s next building phase for affordable housing is still not completed, though Hughes confirmed it would be by the end of the year.

Forty acres of annexed county land to the town, known as the Buck property, is also still undeveloped for affordable housing. That southeast area of town was to be the new concentration of growth, said Lacher, but the GMA’s pressure to build in town persists, including the town’s discussions to allow guest homes where zoning currently prohibits them.

“Do we really need to be adding more units per parcel before the vision that was held for the Buck property is not yet realized?” she asked.

The issue’s history, which Hughes speculated to be 30 years old, still lingers for Lacher leaving her, as she admitted “defensive” about the town’s “fair share” of work to provide affordable housing.

“I don’t want to be in another work group; don’t make me do that,” ended Lacher.

The audience laughed, but after at least a decade of county affordable housing discussions, maybe the joke’s on us.

The next public league event is a member meeting on April 10 at the San Juan Island Library to compare the first 100 days of President Trump’s administration to Obama’s and how it will affect the county.

For more information on the county’s affordable housing issues, search “Affordable Housing FAQ” at

To stay up to date about the county comprehensive plan update, which includes issues that affect affordable housing like density and land use designations, visit and sign up for notices at

Email comments about the project to