LIHI faces tough crowd in Freeland

A community meeting about a shelter at the Harbor Inn may have yielded more questions than answers.

A community meeting in Freeland this week about a shelter project at the Harbor Inn may have yielded more questions than answers.

In 2022, Island County commissioners voted to provide $1.5 million in matching funds to the Low Income Housing Institute, commonly known as LIHI, for the purchase of the motel in Freeland. The Seattle-based nonprofit organization plans to turn the rooms into short-term housing for Island County residents in danger of becoming homeless. Referrals will be provided by the county, and the property will have an on-site manager.

Since being awarded the funds for the project, LIHI faced a lawsuit from a newly formed limited liability company called Freeland Concerned Citizens. The LLC later dismissed the lawsuit.

Representatives from LIHI held an informational meeting Monday night at Trinity Lutheran Church about the project and were met with heavy criticism from members of the community. The LIHI speakers were peppered with questions about the building’s septic capability, permit applications and asbestos abatement, among other concerns. The building is not currently ready to house any guests, but LIHI has stated it plans to open this spring. However, the organization has not yet obtained any building permits from Island County, which could take months, as one commenter pointed out.

Island County Sheriff Rick Felici, who was present at the meeting, asked how staff intended to work with law enforcement to ensure residents are meeting the facility’s code of conduct laid out by LIHI. Audible laughter filled the room as one LIHI representative struggled to respond to the sheriff. Other questions about how and why the code of conduct differs from LIHI’s other facilities on the mainland went virtually unanswered.

A handful of commenters voiced support for the project and LIHI, including one woman who shared her own story of being homeless. But many others were displeased with the lack of answers they received.

Commissioner Melanie Bacon spoke at the end of the meeting to acknowledge that there seemed to be a lack of trust from the community.

“This has been a painful meeting, I think, for all of us and I want to ask you to ensure that we are gonna keep this conversation going,” she addressed the representatives.

Later, Bacon said she felt disappointed by the meeting. She drafted a letter to LIHI Executive Director Sharon Lee, detailing her dissatisfaction with the responses to the questions posed by Whidbey citizens.

“Unfortunately, the LIHI staff was not prepared for the questions, nor did they exhibit much knowledge about the project or our community,” Bacon wrote.

In an email to The Record, LIHI Director of Community Engagement Josh Castle said the organization is working on projects and permit applications to make the property ready for the program. Work that needs to be done includes replacement of stairs, additional lighting, installation of a security system and cameras, landscaping and common area room renovation, which will include access to laundry services for clients.

He added that the goal of the program is to move guests to permanent housing within 30 days.

“That could take many forms — transitioning program guests into any of over 3,000 LIHI permanent housing units across the region, permanent affordable housing through other organizations, moving into private market rate housing where this is feasible, or reunifying with family or friends on a permanent basis,” he said.

Castle added that LIHI’s programs have the highest success rate of transiting people into permanent housing and “we do not believe the program at Harbor Inn will be any different.”

As he pointed out, no city or county in the Puget Sound region is immune from homelessness or the current housing crisis.

“As we heard at the community meeting from several Freeland neighbors sharing deeply personal stories, rent and housing costs have skyrocketed in Freeland and across the county, causing more people to live on the margins and too many to end up forced to live in their car or outside,” he said.

LIHI intends to hold more community meetings in the future on the Harbor Inn project. Volunteers can help set up the site in the coming months by emailing for more information.

Photo by Kira Erickson/South Whidbey Record
LIHI Director of Community Engagement Josh Castle answers a question.

Photo by Kira Erickson/South Whidbey Record LIHI Director of Community Engagement Josh Castle answers a question.