Addressing the severe lack of housing for islanders

by Bill Bangs

Orcas Island

Most of us know or have heard of someone who has been a hardworking neighbor in our county for many years and who has lost their long-term rental home. Some of these friends and neighbors have been forced to move to the mainland to find housing. And most of us know of at least one business owner/manager who has been forced to curtail services because their staff can’t find housing. Please check out the recent broadcast from KUOW to hear some examples: https://www.kuow.org/stories/no-more-yurts-orcas-islanders-want-affordable-places-year-round. These stories and hundreds more point to a serious problem for everyone in the county.

Over the past two decades, the county population has grown by nearly 4,000 residents while the prime-age workforce population has shrunk by more than 1,000. The number of non-resident housing units has increased by 62% while the number of long-term rental units is shrinking. The demand for goods and services is increasing while the capability to provide supply is decreasing. Our community is trebly diminished as all residents suffer from a reduced quality of life, a diminished experience for visitors, and a reduced diversity and vitality of this community.

One of the primary causes of this complex problem is the severe lack of housing available to the working community. Even though San Juan County has the eighth-highest median hourly wages in the state (esd.wa.gov), one-third of county households are spending more than 30% of their income on housing. This problem is neither new nor unique to San Juan County. In spite of numerous workshops, concerns expressed by county staff, local and outside studies, a fifteen million dollar housing fund, and the heroic efforts of our community land trusts, the problem continues to get worse. Sensible regulations regarding vacation rentals can make a dent in this problem, but we need significantly more low-to-moderate cost rental housing. Is there a way to do this while preserving our scenic landscape and rural character? Clusters of modest homes, including multifamily units in designated growth areas such as April’s Grove in Eastsound, show a promising path forward. Other communities have successfully welcomed tiny home villages and well-regulated neighborhoods of high-quality manufactured homes. Is there the collective will to form a coalition of our local government, non-profit organizations, and private citizens, including the non-resident, seasonal homeowners, to make this happen?

I estimate that our county could use 1,300 housing units today, restricted to working residents. Another 600 will be needed by 2036. I have written a short white-paper describing these issues and my estimates in some detail: https://tinyurl.com/2p8r3suw. I welcome comments, questions, and constructive criticisms to that paper.