The unemployment charts look like a heartbeat monitor keeping a pulse on the seasonal tourism economy in San Juan Islands year after year. In January, it skyrockets, and in August it plunges. During the course of those months, the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages reports that San Juan County has a 43 percent increase in jobs, and a 159 percent increase in leisure and hospitality alone. In 2013, that broke down to 1,958 people, leaving an indelible mark on the availability of affordable rentals in the county.
Rosario Resort, Roche Harbor Resort, kayaking companies and small businesses have struggled to find employees. The resorts are able to be somewhat self-sufficient in assisting their employees with housing, since both have built some level of seasonal housing and have plans to expand. Rosario and Roche managers say they are short of staff.
For locals, the seasonal economy is one of the main drivers that Jennifer Armstrong, executive director at San Juan Island Family Resource Center, sees as being difficult for renters as those living check to check experience boom and bust periods.
“Does it have an impact on tenants? Yes. We are flooded with emergency rental needs in the winter months. This is our dead month,” Armstrong said. “In January, February, March it’s like a revolving door in here because people are out of work or have really diminished hours. That’s when we see the bulk of our rental and utilities assistance.”
Right now, however, Armstrong’s office is relatively quiet as the summer influx of jobs keeps islanders – both long term and short term – busy.
Rosario Resort and Roche Harbor Resort are two mainstays in the seasonal boom, and say that they take on an additional 100 employees during the summer. Currently both are short of staff, and both say that lack of housing is a major factor in keeping them from hiring more people.
“We felt very strongly that if we are going to bring seasonal employees to the island we must be responsible to house them ourselves and lessen the impact on the community,” General Manager Christopher Peacock said. “Many of our employees also take second jobs at other businesses on the island, which helps the community.”
Rosario will be building another dormitory, approved by the county in 2007, that would provide 40 more dorm-like units. Rosario currently houses approximately 82 of their employees with their own housing, and Peacock said they are short 20 staff members. At Roche Harbor Resort, 100 employees come in for the season, 70 of which stay in employee housing made up of cottages, duplexes and tiny homes, leaving around 30 to find their own housing in the area.
Brent Snow, general manager at Roche Harbor Resort, has lived here for 23 years and seen the changes in the housing market.
“The value of short-term seasonal transient housing has really challenged the market for long-term residential rental and reasonable, affordable seasonal rentals,” Snow said. “Somebody used to be able to come up here with some connections and rent someones cottage. Very, very difficult now.”
Snow said that housing is a yearly issue for the resort, and that the need is always expanding:
“I’ve mentioned this many times, you know, people ask ‘what can we do to help improve business?’ And my biggest thing is, more importantly than bringing in more guests here, we need to be able to provide the resources for seasonal businesses to be able to successfully operate, and the most important thing is you’ve gotta have humans. That’s really way up on the list.”
According to Town Administrator Duncan Wilson, the town has limited transient rentals in order to keep permanent housing for full-time residents and to keep vacationers from disrupting residents.
“In our opinion we have a distinct shortage of affordable housing locally. It’s difficult finding places for those coming to work in the summer, but more importantly its hard for people to affordably live here around the year,” Wilson said. “The overall policy of the town is that we cannot allow all of our housing stock to be taken over by transient rentals.”
For residents on San Juan, a blow to affordable, long-term rentals came from a reduced stock of income-based units in 2013.
“We’ve seen the number of available income-based units diminish significantly in the past two years. So that’s one of the problems with finding a place to live,” Armstrong said. “I know a lot of people are attributing a big part of the problem to increased popularity of vacation rentals, but I don’t have a strong sense yet of that impacting the families we deal with, most of our families are low-income.”
Armstrong suggested that it may impact lower-middle class families more than the families she works with since in general, Armstrong said, low-income families are looking at paying $800 a month, which is below the asking price for rentals that teeter between long-term and vacation rentals.
“I’d like to see that be a bigger part of the discussion here. I think this community has done an amazing job on affordable homes for people to buy,” Armstrong said. “But the reality is we have a huge number of people that are just not in the position to buy anything. Either because they may not be here a long enough for a number of reasons that are out of their control or just financially – they’re working minimum wage and there are limitations on what they can get into.”