Look at the whole picture of housing | Editorial

San Juan County has the least affordable housing in the entire state of Washington. According to San Juan County Councilman Rick Hughes, it’s been an issue for 30 years.

The county is looking at proposed amendments to the vacation rentals ordinance to address affordable housing and complaints from vacation rentals’ neighbors, like excessive noise and limited parking.

We are relieved to see that officials are paying closer attention to the housing crisis, but creating stricter vacation rental permits is just one part of a very complex issue.

In 2015, the council asked the Housing Bank Commission to report on whether an increase in vacation rentals impacted affordable housing availability county-wide, but commissioners did not create one. The main county report has come from Erika Shook, director of San Juan County Community Development, who presented to the council on March 6. She said of the 13,619 housing units and 7,708 households in the county, 7 percent are vacation rentals, 16 percent are renter-occupied, 36 percent are vacant homes and 41 percent are owner-occupied.

The U.S. Census has similar numbers. The county’s 15,956 residents live in 13,619 housing units, and vacant homes account for 43 percent of housing. Of those, 3.8 percent are homes currently available to purchase and 8.7 percent are available rentals. The rest make up unoccupied homes not currently available to permanently live in – 7 percent of those are vacation rentals while the rest are mainly second and third homes.

If you go look at both sets of data, we have an overwhelming number of second homes that are sitting unoccupied, which we think has far more impact than vacation rentals.

In 2000, there were 275 vacation rental permits in the county. In 2015, there were 964. While that is certainly a steady increase, we don’t think it’s an exorbitant number.

Shook told The Journal, the week of March 6: “Our housing market and our long-term rental housing market are so tight; even though vacation rentals are not a huge percentage, it’s impacting affordable housing, but maybe not as much as people think. Vacation rentals are one contributing factor.”

At a March 13 affordable housing forum, held by the League of Women Voters of the San Juans, other components were mentioned: low wages for island residents; building on a rural island is expensive by nature; county building projects often don’t fit requirements for the Washington State Housing Trust Fund, which provides affordable housing; and Growth Management Act rules prohibit building high-density housing clusters in many areas.

Hughes offered some solutions: the county has set aside $100,000 from lodging taxes to possibly purchase land or build short-term housing for employees of tourist-related businesses. He also suggested changes in the comprehensive plan update to allow tiny home communities with shared showers and kitchens.

Overall, we need more data on the reality of affordable housing before policy changes can be made. We aren’t opposed to creating additional rules for vacation rentals, but we don’t believe this will solve the housing crisis. We hope we aren’t having this same conversation another 30 years from now.