County adopts affordable housing sales tax

The 0.1% sales tax will generate an estimated $1.1 million a year toward the program.

Island County commissioners unanimously passed a sales tax increase Tuesday aimed at creating new affordable housing in the community.

The 0.1% sales tax, which means an extra 10 cents on a $100 purchase, will generate an estimated $1.1 million a year toward the program. The county’s overall sales tax is now 8.8%. Many other counties, including Skagit and Snohomish, have already adopted the tax.

Census data shows that of the 10,000 renter households in Island County, about 2,800 are “cost burdened,” meaning they pay 30% or more of their income toward housing, and about 1,800 are “severely cost burdened,” meaning they are paying 50% or more of their income for housing.

The funds will be used to create affordable housing units for people whose salaries are at or below 60% of median income for the county and who fit in one of several groups, including veterans, senior citizens, people with disabilities, domestic violence survivors and families with children at risk of homelessness.

Median income for a family of three is $43,000 a year; that family would be considered cost burdened if it pays more than $1,079 a month for housing.

A new state law allowed the commissioners to adopt the tax increase without placing it on the ballot. Residents spoke both for and against the tax at a public hearing in January. Many of those who were opposed felt that voters should decide the measure.

The commissioners continued the public meeting until Tuesday. This time seven people spoke in favor of the measure, and nobody voiced opposition.

Fanny Dean, a longtime Oak Harbor resident and housing advocate, spoke about the “innocent people” in the community who despair because they can’t find housing.

“You guys wouldn’t understand the stress people have to go through,” she said.

Mary Mitchell, a homeless liaison for the South Whidbey School District, said there are 447 school-aged children on Whidbey Island who are “unstably housed.”

Commissioner Janet St. Clair, a Democrat representing District 3, spoke about how she struggled with the sales tax proposal and went back and forth over whether to support it for a variety of reasons. She said, for example, that she was leery about passing another regressive tax increase.

“I literally was a no this weekend,” she said. “I have spent so much time in prayer over the issue.”

St. Clair said she did a “deep dive” to investigate and analyze the issue and ultimately decided to support it. She said the county needs a source of funding in order to leverage and match the complex array of grant opportunities from the state and federal government.

Commissioner Melanie Bacon, a Democrat representing District 1, said she was “highly in support” of the measure.

Commissioner Jill Johnson, a Republican representing District 2, spoke fervently in support of the tax measure. She pointed out that the lack of affordable housing has been a top concern among residents, government officials and business owners for years. Businesses in the community are struggling and even failing because of a dearth in the workforce due to the lack fo affordable housing.

“It is irresponsible for people to say this is our highest priority and then turn your back on it,” she said.

In response to earlier public comment, the commissioners added a couple of paragraphs to the ordinance adopting the sales tax. One of the additions clarifies that the tax is for the creation of new units of affordable housing that will remain within the affordable housing inventory in perpetuity. Money can only be used for supportive housing in new housing.

The other addition states that the board of commissioners recommends the suspension of the tax after 10 years if new housing units were created, if the balance of the fund exceeds $10 million and if the percentage of rent-burdened households falls below 10%.

In response to the comment that the voters should decide on the tax, Johnson pointed out that the county is not a referendum form of government and that tax increases are passed every year without placing them on the ballot. She pointed out that a county-wide ballot question is expensive, costing as much as $200,000.

The county’s program will focus on workforce housing — for such workers as retail and restaurant employees, childcare providers, nurses, county road crew and journalists — but people with mental health and substance abuse challenges will also be served; as Johnson pointed out, “they are also part of our community.”

She argued that the tax is the smart fiscal decision. She said the government invests large amounts of money in the most expensive institutions — emergency rooms, jails and inpatients treatment — to help vulnerable people, only to have them fail when they can’t find housing. The key to lasting, positive change is stabilizing people’s situations, she said.

“I will say that I don’t like to raise taxes in any form,” she said. “What I like to do less is throw good money after bad.”