More About Too Little Housing

Thanks to Sno-Isle Libraries for convening an “Issues That Matter – Housing, Where will we all live?” meeting. Its focus was Oak Harbor, but the issues reach beyond city limits and island shorelines.

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Housing on Whidbey Island isn’t just something for real estate brokers to talk about. (note: The author is a real estate broker with Coldwell Banker Tara Properties.) Convene a meeting about trends, workforce housing, or urban growth and pack the room with people and opinions. It may be a silly thing to say, but being on an island matters. An island can’t simply annex its neighbors. Annexing the blue places on the map doesn’t change much. It also can’t pave the farms, tear down history, and clear the forests. Yet, it is necessary to find as much room as possible. Oh yeah, and then there are the limitations of water, sanitation, transportation, biology and geology, while maintaining quality of life. There must be a limit to the number of people who can live here. Maybe we’re exploring that experientially.

Within Island County, Oak Harbor is unique. It is The Big City. Oak Harbor is the site for big box stores, a more urban lifestyle, shops that stay open past sunset; as well as the place to find yet more tourist and vacation venues like marinas and views. And. The Navy Base. Naval Air Station Whidbey Island is known for its pilot training facilities, including practicing landing on a carrier – but on land before heading to sea. As other bases have closed, NAS-WI has grown. Growth means more people. More people means a need for more housing. More housing means… Well, that’s the issue that matters.

The event was a good one. Just look at the panel: (Sno-Isle.org)

  • Facilitator:
    • Christine Cribb, Executive Director of Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce
  • Panelists:
    • Steve Powers, Development Services Director, City of Oak Harbor
    • Robin Amadon, Housing Development Director, Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI)
    • Joanne Pelant, Housing Resource Coordinator, Island County
    • Meredith Penny, Long Range Planner at Island County Planning & Community Development
    • Scott Thompson, Managing Director of Wright’s Crossing LLC

The issue is easy to stereotype as homeless versus not-homeless; but there is more nuance than that, and that nuance had to be reinforced frequently. Homelessness is bad enough, but the housing shortage is also affecting the larger community of people who have full-time jobs. Workforce housing is affecting businesses as employees may not be available, or employees need to commute to and from the mainland; and if they are commuting to more densely populated areas, maybe they can just get a job there instead. That’s even the case with Navy personnel whose non-military members also have jobs.

Sno-Isle Libraries livestreamed the event on Facebook. Rummage around a bit and you may find it. They (and this blog’s author) live-tweeted the event. For those familiar with hashtags, click on #snoisleITM. For those not familiar with hashtags, well, here’s an opportunity to learn more. Read through and notice the variety of issues, concerns, and approaches. Notice as well that there isn’t a consensus.

If there was sufficient land, financing, and appropriate regulations, as well as sufficient wages; then the issue would be more readily resolved. There’s a need for at least 3,750 units for Oak Harbor. There may be a great improvement in the number of units under permit, but that is still measured in hundreds, not thousands. Financing is hindered by the need for an appropriate balance of risk and reward; but some regulations make liability an issue, and recessions need to be considered. Even before the Navy decided to add personnel, the income necessary to afford a home or even an apartment was growing.

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The issue for the evening was Oak Harbor, but the issue also applies in various forms across the island, the region, the state, and the nation. One estimate suggests the nation needs 11 million affordable housing units, but only 4 million are available. Sno-Isle Library is named after two counties: Snohomish and Island. The Issues That Matter series pervades both.

One solution in progress was mentioned in a previous post as well, subsidized housing to alleviate homelessness. There are costs for such a program, but some cities like Seattle have experienced economic benefits to stabilizing such devastated lifestyles. There are a variety of workforce housing issues, which hope to span the gap between no home and conventional housing. How much of the costs are covered by organization and how much are covered by the residents? Are they moved out as they move up in income? By common guidelines, incomes under ~$60K can be considered low income, especially when measured against housing costs. From a quickly typed tweet; “a $36950 annual means a $923 rent target but $1600 is the market rate.” There’s a gap. Community Land Trusts are an alternative, and if you don’t know what they are, then you’ve proved how unconventional they can be. The Facilitator told her story of selling a nice house, renting for a while, then having difficulty buying back into the market despite being the Executive Director of the Chamber of Commerce. The more conventional and high-end housing also is dealing with high county vacancy rates as part-time residents need their houses, but necessarily reduce supply. Building more conventional houses may only provide more supply for vacationers and short-term rentals for investors, not necessarily for full-time residents.

It was pointed out that policies can’t be enacted that only work with today’s solutions to today’s problems. The future must be considered. Emphasizing apartments over houses works well until more houses are needed, or more condos, or more townhouses, or more mixed-use properties. The economy isn’t always the same. And, while it wasn’t mentioned, even the military’s involvement may change. Will national defense policy always remain the same? What happens with technology advancements that further emphasize pilot-less vehicles? City and County planners need to think about tomorrow, too.

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And as was mentioned in previous posts, Whidbey Island remains in demand. Whidbey Island has an affordable housing issue, but the island is more affordable than the other major islands in the Puget Sound, and the Puget Sound is more affordable than many other major cities around the Pacific Rim.

Demand and demands may be the only things that are in great supply – and maybe housing supply is reaching its limit.

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