Local housing crisis

OPAL’s Lavender Hollow, above, is one of the island’s largest affordable housing unit with 22 spaces.  - Cali Bagby/Staff Photo
OPAL’s Lavender Hollow, above, is one of the island’s largest affordable housing unit with 22 spaces.
— image credit: Cali Bagby/Staff Photo

Randy Davis and his family are on the verge of homelessness. Their circumstances are a matter of supply and demand, rather than a lack of financial resources. Davis said he could easily pay up to $2,000 per month on rent, but there is nothing available in that price range.

“It takes a toll on the family,” he said. “They are not happy to not have a place – not knowing what is going to happen next is stressful.”

Davis is married and has two kids with another child due in June. The family is currently staying in a home on the rental market. Once it’s sold they will have to look elsewhere. Since moving back to the islands in 2010 after a four-year break, the Davis family has moved five times.

When Davis applied for affordable housing several years ago he says that he was turned down because he made too much money. He owns a rental home in Eastern Washington, where he lived several years ago, but because of owning that place he can’t get a second loan for an island home. Yet, even with a loan there may not be anything for him to purchase in his price range. According to Davis, most of the homes he has looked at are “fixer uppers.” He describes himself as not being able to swing a hammer – he works on cars, which is why he is the co-owner of a local mechanic shop.

Davis is one of six islanders who wrote to the Sounder concerning the shortage of housing on the island. Problems included the lack of affordable housing and failure to get a loan. Several islanders said they will be forced to move off-island this summer because they have nowhere to live.

And these folks are not alone.

In 2006, 21,962 persons were tallied by the Washington State Point-in-Time Count as homeless in Washington state. By 2009 the number had jumped to 22,827. Then in 2011 numbers went down again to 20,346 . Last year’s tally listed 20,336 persons.

In San Juan County, 32 people were listed as homeless by the count in 2012, which is a decrease from 42 people in 2011. But last year’s numbers were a large increase from the 11 listed in 2007 and the mere nine listed in 2008.

The number of people temporarily living in San Juan County with family or friends was 27 in 2012 and 68 in 2011 compared to 62 in 2006.

Erin O’Dell, of Orcas Family Connections, said these statistics aren’t ideal because it’s hard to keep track of people without housing in the islands, so the statistics often vary based on the number of people who actually respond to the survey.

What she does know is that the lack of housing is the number one problem that Orcas Family Connections cannot fix, other than to say, “I’m sorry.”

Lack of housing trumps islanders’ needs of medical insurance, ferry tickets, food, energy assistance and mental health. There are programs to assist people in need of medical help, food, travel and even mental health, but when it comes to affordable housing there are plenty of wounds and few bandages.

O’Dell estimates there is an average of 15 families a month in need of a place to live. She said there is a program that can give eligible families a boost of $500 for housing, but that rarely solves the problem.

“It can help augment or help a household avoid falling into a hole they can’t get out of,” said O’Dell. “But if you are already falling way behind, it is just a band-aid.”

There are a few other housing assistance programs that attempt to tackle the housing deficit. Recently, O’Dell worked on a county-wide program providing seven residents a year’s worth of rent or funds for rent. Three people on Orcas qualified but could not find a home to rent. One applicant had four kids, which created a problem. To qualify for assistance she was required to rent a three-bedroom house because the kids were of different genders. A three-bedroom apartment or home could not be located.

There are not many affordable three-bedroom apartments or houses on the island. There are about 112 long-term rentals on the island. Only one of those rentals is currently available.There are about 100 vacation rentals listed on Orcas.

Apartment complexes with larger spaces like the seven apartments at OPAL Community Land Trust’s Reddick and the 22 spaces at OPAL’s Lavender Hollow apartments have a waiting list.

According to Lisa Byers, director of OPAL, which creates affordable housing on Orcas Island, there has been an increase in housing needs since the spring.

“There has been a sense of urgency expressing heightened levels of emotions,” she said.

Part of this surge, she said, is due to the sale of the six units at Wildwood apartments to Rosario Resort.

According to Christoper Peacock, Rosario’s general manager, the apartments were purchased to provide housing for year-round employees that were in need of housing. Due to Rosario’s increase in business – including the operation of 105 guest rooms – their housing needs also expanded. They will continue to house seasonal workers in the Rosario area.

“We are trying to take care of our employees while also trying to absorb the impact on the community,” said Peacock.

According to the Wildwoods owner Phil Miller, all of the tenants were offered jobs at Rosario to stay in the units. No one accepted the offer. In addition, Rosario offered $250 to each tenant to help with moving expenses.

Dawn Atkinson has lived on the island for 11 years and she said the housing shortage is the worst she has ever seen. She and her husband lived in the Wildwood apartments for the last two years. She said they were given four weeks notice and in that time Atkinson and her husband could not find any rentals in their price range of $900. Atkinson works at Orcas Village Store in the customer service department and her spouse is a carpenter.

Until the Atkinsons find a permanent solution they plan on moving into a travel trailer on a friend’s property. The Atkinsons want to live on the island – they have grandchildren living on Orcas – but if they can’t find a home by the end of the summer Dawn said they might have to look at moving off-island.

“It’s frustrating and not just for us,” she added. “There are four families and some have small children who have to find a new home.”

Unfortunately, there may not be an easy solution.

Even for organizations like OPAL, whose mission is to find housing, it’s a challenge to provide rentals as well as ownership for islanders.

“We are not always able to meet the needs,” said Byers.

OPAL has looked at ways to build more units like Lavender Hollow, but funding and feasibility have been problematic.

“We have really struggled to play a role in finding places for people,” said Byers. “As it tightens in this rental market, we don’t have a good answer.”

Davis is able to sum up his experience in one anecdote. When a real estate broker showed up at his shop, Davis asked him if he knew of any rentals. According to Davis, the broker replied, “Good luck, it’s a big problem on the island.”

Then he asked Davis to put a spare tire on his car.

“That makes me feel like crap,” said Davis. “You want me to be here to work on your car, but there is nowhere for people like me to live. It’s very frustrating.”


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