Yes to REET | Editorial

Yes to REET | Editorial

Staff report

We support the affordable housing measure on this November’s ballot.

San Juan County has the least affordable housing in the state of Washington. Islanders are forced into communal living or tight rental situations. People have moved to the mainland in search of better housing markets. Business owners struggle to find employees because the working class has nowhere to lay their heads.

You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t agree that we – like other communities across the nation – have a housing crisis. What’s harder to find consensus on is how to solve it. There isn’t one answer to fix it all, and it’s become clear that a variety of measures will be required to make a dent.

We applaud the county for doing its part to ensure that short-term rentals are being properly managed. In March 2018, the council approved stricter vacation rental rules that included increasing safety measures and curbing nuisance complaints as well as updated vacation rental enforcement regulations. Now county staff can charge larger fees if they find an unpermitted vacation rental.

There is also incredible work being done by land trusts, private donors and landlords to help ease the burden. But the time has come for a more steady revenue stream to combat the issue.

A county affordable housing fund is on this November’s ballot. If approved, the county would collect a Real Estate Excise Tax, or REET, on the sale of real estate. They would collect 0.5 percent of the selling price of local real estate with the buyer paying 99 percent and the seller paying 1 percent. For example, it would add $2,688 to the selling price of a median-valued county home of $537,500.

The one-time tax would be in effect for 12 years, and its purpose is to provide funding for the development and preservation of housing for very-low, low- and moderate-income residents and those with special needs.

The funds, which are expected to be $1.2 million annually, would be managed through the health and community services department and the housing advisory council. The county council would have final decision-making authority. Recipients of the funds could be nonprofits, public agencies, housing authorities and for-profits. County staff has stated projects that create perpetually affordable housing would be given the highest preference. For the full REET administration and financial plan, visit https://bit.ly/2yzIniD.

If passed, the tax would be implemented 30 days after the Nov. 6 election is certified, and projects are estimated to be awarded funds by winter 2019. According to the YES For Homes group campaign, it is projected that for every dollar raised, at least $4 additional will be attracted through state and federal funding, loans, grantors and local contributors.

Opponents of the measure say it’s a strange solution: increase the cost of buying a home to provide affordable housing to others. However, the actual cost to the home buyer of a median-priced house is not significant, and the benefit it would give to our community is truly far-reaching. Those buying houses on the higher end of the market would pay more. For example, a $1 million house will pay a $5,000 REET.

We strongly encourage recipients of the funds to look carefully at their income requirements and ensure that those with a moderate income are served as well. We like that OPAL Land Trust on Orcas has a new program called the “Island Loan Fund,” which provides bridge loans and mortgage financing for people who are not yet able to get a bank loan. This is open to non-land trust homeowners, meaning they can purchase a home on the free market.

The REET alone will not solve our housing challenge. But it’s a reasonable proposal that will directly support those who are committed to ensuring that a wide variety of residents can afford to call San Juan County home.