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Friday Harbor, San Juan County to explore combined housing authority

An ad hoc working group, a business plan and a little more time so that everyone can get up to speed.

Expect a few new cards to be on the table when the top elected officials of Friday Harbor and San Juan County get together three months from now and resume weighing the pros and cons of a jointly-operated housing authority.

And though they remain non-commital, members of the town and county councils collectively kicked the housing-authority can a little farther down the road last week by setting the stage for future discussions. Until then, however, they agreed that the newest members of the town council could use some time to become educated on what's proven in the past to be a contentious topic.

"What I'm looking for is a full-out business plan that would show where the sources of revenue a housing authority can use would come from," said councilman Richard Fralick, chairman of the county council.

That plan, Fralick said, should describe in detail the capabilities, priorities and liabilities of a housing authority, and identify how such an entity would operate and what problems it would address. He said it should also highlight the means in which it could be funded.

In addition to a business plan, county Councilman Rich Peterson, North San Juan, said creating some type of town and county working group to help sort out the details "makes sense".

In June, the County Council agreed to examine the benefits of teaming up with the town on a housing authority in approving the most recent update of the housing element of the county comprehensive plan. That element establishes the goals and policies by which the county's future housing needs can best be met.

Of 39 counties in Washington state, San Juan and Garfield are the only two without a housing authority; 29 have their own and eight counties operate a housing authority in partnership with a neighboring jurisdiction. Cities across the state, like Seattle, often join forces with their home counties, like King, in forming a jointly-run housing authority.

According to Angela Lausch, the county's affordable housing coordinator, a housing authority is uniquely positioned to provide services and foster housing for segments of the local community which non-profit housing groups, despite their many achievements, are not. A housing authority, typically managed by a board of trustees, which can include locally-elected officials, can buy property, sponsor or undertake housing projects, lease and manage properties, provide rental assistance and, Lausch noted, can serve those with an income that may be too high or too low to qualify for a local land-trust home.

Along with ability to sell bonds, Lausch added that a housing authority can sell or lease homes at market rates to help bolster development of affordable housing.

"A housing authority has a lot of flexibility and it really can be tailored to meet the needs of its community," she said.

San Juan is not entirely lacking benefits that a housing authority can provide. Skagit County's housing authority, which operates in partnership with the city of Anacortes, provides rental assistance to about 20 islanders who are under the age of 62 and qualify as mentally-disabled under federal standards via Section 8 vouchers, a federally-funded program.

However, according to Bill Agosta, chairman of the county Housing Bank Commission, leaders of Skagit's housing authority have expressed little interest, and have even less incentive, in expanding into the San Juans. Essentially, Agosta said, they have enough to do without trying to help San Juan remedy its lack of affordable housing.

Agosta said members of the Housing Bank would be willing to draw up a business plan.

"We would be glad to do that," he said. "It sounds like a reasonable step forward."

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