Islanders say more ADUs could help alleviate housing woes

Detached Accessory Dwelling Units topped the list of proposed solutions to the county’s affordable housing crisis at a recent community meeting.

The community group San Juan County Housing Solutions hosted the May 25 meeting to address the widening gap between county home prices and the purchasing power of the working class. They examined current and future housing needs and financial and legislative tools that could help.

The affordability gap is widening, even with the change in the market,” said Housing Solutions steering committee chair Lisa Byers, director of OPAL Community Land Trust. She said global purchasing power still inflates prices beyond the reach of local workers. She said median income buyers could afford a median-priced county home in the 1960’s and 70’s, but prices began to outpace income in the 1980’s. Taking into account the average wage of county workers in each sector: government, healthcare, food service etc., and assuming double-income households, the group has calculated that these workers would still be $15 to 20,000 shy of being able to afford even the 20 least expensive, mortgageable homes that sold in 2009. The households would be $65-70,000 short for a median-priced home.

The group also looked at current rental market rates: the average one bedroom costs $724/month; two bedrooms, $841; and single family home, $1,100/month. They said these are out of reach for many local workers.

Byers gave three reasons why islanders might want to take action against the trend of rising housing costs: because “Housing is needed for those who make it possible for me to live here,” such as healthcare workers, police, builders, checkers, shopkeepers, waiters, teachers and others; to support the islands’ socioeconomic diversity; and “because it’s the right thing to do.”

While 63 percent of attendees said they personally would support an affordable housing tax, not a single discussion group suggested taxation as a solution islanders would be likely to embrace. Instead, every group spoke of Accessory Dwelling Units or guest houses as a way to provide lower-cost housing.

Some suggested allowing the building of additional ADUs only if they were specifically designated as year-round rentals. Another group suggested a reduced tax valuation or a tax credit for those who provide a year-round rental.

Attending councilman Richard Fralick spoke on the same vein of thought, saying that given current property prices, “You don’t get the price down – you get the density up.”

Current detached ADU regulations were clearly not meant to favor use as long-term affordable rentals: construction is severely limited and they must be built very close to a property’s main home.

In 2011, only 9 new ADUs may be built. Two existing structures that are at least five years old may be converted into ADUs. Outside of urban growth and activity centers, ADUs cannot be built on lots less than five rural acres, 10 agricultural acres or 20 forest acres. ADUs must be built no more than 100 feet from the main house – even on a 20-acre property – and must use the same driveway, septic and water systems, all likely deterrents for privacy-loving homeowners.

John Evans said local building restrictions make it “very difficult to build here” and inflate the cost of existing homes.

We are skewing the market by decisions we make here,” he said, citing restrictions on building guest houses as one obstacle.

Other suggestions included expanding current activity centers to allow more housing units – “The hamlets must rise,” said Matthew Maher – and creating job-related housing.

Land use policy was agreed to have significant problem-solving potential by 77 percent of attendees.

While nine existing affordable apartment buildings in the county provide 109 housing units, the last one was constructed about 20 years ago, Byers said. She said the economies of scale such projects require to be financially feasible —fifty or more apartments in one project–are not likely to be accepted or viable in San Juan County.

There are currently 570 county homes the group considers affordable due to grants, low-interest loans or higher density; 214 were created by the four county housing nonprofits.

Byers said tools that have been used in the past include USDA mortgage loans, state housing trust grants and rent subsidies; local philanthropy; socially conscious investing; local government regulations like higher density land use designation.

Under the latest budget cuts federal and state funding has been slashed.

New business models and sources of funding must be found,” said Byers. She said the county has not yet tried market-based solutions or creating a local housing authority.

Housing Solutions held meetings on Lopez and San Juan islands earlier. The group will be giving its presentation to various county groups by request. For more information on the housing crisis, visit http://sjchousingsolutions.com/.