Commissioners poised to pass housing element in October

Barring any major last-minute changes, the Island County Board of Commissioners plans to adopt the county’s housing element of the comprehensive plan after a public hearing held at the beginning of October.

Island County Planning and Community Development staff has been working on updating the long-range planning document that guides housing policies for over a year.

The board discussed the most recent draft Wednesday at a work session and decided to hold one last public hearing on it.

“I think it represents a really big body of work and that gives it its moment,” said Commissioner Jill Johnson.

The element outlines housing conditions and future needs in the county.

When work began, a consultant helped staff compile a housing inventory, needs analysis, projected demand and capacity. From that data, staff worked with the consultant, the board and the planning commission to develop goals and policies.

Information gathered from sources such as the U.S. Census Bureau, Island County Assessor, the Office of Financial Management and more shows a significant deficit in housing options for lower income families and a lack of diversity in housing types.

Census information found that over 30 percent of households in each section of Whidbey Island are cost burdened, defined as spending more than 30 percent of income on housing.

The problem is especially prevalent for renters, 50 percent of whom are cost burdened in the county.

The popularity of Island County as a vacation home destination also poses an issue to housing availability.

Over 60 percent of vacant units in the county are second homes, according to the data.

Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said she appreciated the policy given in the element to evaluate the impact of vacation rentals on housing issues, as she sees it as a larger problem in Island County than other areas.

“It’s a bigger issue for us,” she said.

A section of the element was added at the request of the planning commission to address the “character and vitality” of the county.

It stresses the importance of facilitating “healthy change within neighborhoods by providing for development that is compatible in quality, character to the existing land uses, traffic patterns, public facilities and sensitive environmental features.”

The county will accomplish this through development regulations and other codes, it states.

The first of the goals, which aren’t listed in order of priority, is to encourage preservation of existing housing capacity and of the “character of existing communities.”

Policies to support this goal include monitoring properties with expiring subsidies and identifying strategies to preserve their affordability, promoting awareness of programs for repair and rehabilitation, and developing strategies to encourage re-use of existing structures.

The second goal is to promote development of different types of affordable workforce housing, which the element defines as homes aimed at households earning from 60 to 120 percent of area median income.

The policies aim to encourage different types of developments such as mutli-family units, duplexes and sites for recreational vehicle parks for temporary lodging in appropriate locations.

Goals three and four are to promote fair access to housing and shelter and promote policies that increase the supply of subsidized housing.

Policies include identifying appropriate locations for transitional housing and emergency shelters, promoting awareness of fair housing laws and encouraging diverse representation in groups that make housing-related recommendations.

Language in the document aims to promote subsidized housing by evaluating opportunities to eliminate or reduce permit fees for subsidized and low-income housing and implementing incentives for those projects to be built in non-municipal urban growth areas (NMUGAS, such as Freeland) and mixed-use rural areas of intense development (RAIDS).

The last goal is to collaborate with other jurisdictions and organizations to address county-wide housing issues.

Under this goal, a policy was added that states the board will consider housing-related policy implementation actions as part of its annual work plan review.

The public hearing on the element update is expected to be held at 10 a.m. on Oct. 2.

More information and the full document can be found at islandc