Affordable housing efforts on Whidbey Island are drawing a broad range of reactions, among them fear it will attract people who engage in disruptive or dangerous behavior, concern it will serve people who aren’t from Island County and frustration it likely wouldn’t contribute to property tax revenue.
It’s also led some to insist that government shouldn’t be involved.
These concerns were voiced at public meetings or given as input to county officials. They’ve cropped up in discussions about a proposed development in Oak Harbor, a proposed manufactured housing community in an unincorporated area, and, recently, when discussing the county’s housing element — which aims to support affordable housing development by removing barriers when possible.
“I’m going to be thankful when this is over because it’s showing a side of our community that I’m fundamentally heartbroken over,” Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson said during a recent meeting about the housing element update.
Johnson, who has been significantly involved in affordable housing discussions, said in an interview she understands some of the fears people have expressed to her, but she thinks most of the ones regarding the people who live in public housing are unfounded.
“The idea that income is the only thing that determines whether or not you’re going to be a good neighbor … I think that it’s an inappropriate fear,” she said.
She stressed the fact that low-income individuals are already a part of the community, but are likely spending too much of their money on rent, which can keep people in a “perpetual state of financial crisis.”
Joanne Pelant, county housing resource coordinator, said she’s noticed sometimes conversations around affordable housing and homelessness, especially regarding the more disruptive behavior of a select few, get “jumbled and create concern where there doesn’t need to be concern.”
The homelessness issue is important, and is one the county and other organizations are working to address, but it is a fundamentally different conversation, Pelant said.
This confusion is something she said her department is actively trying to clear up with outreach.
Community understanding about affordable housing is important, she said, because it can help drive its development.
“The developers are going to go where they see the local communities have dollars and positive attitudes about building,” Pelant said. “So, we’re working on that positive attitude, and I think we’ve come a long way in some areas, but I think there’s still work to be done.”
Most affordable housing developments will aid low-income people and people on disability payments or a pension, but some sort of income is required.
What is considered “affordable” depends on the area median income, or AMI. These units typically serve households that make 50 percent of the area median income, which in Island County would mean those making around $38,650.
Some developments also house households at 30 percent AMI, which is $23,190 in Island County.
At that price point, developers often need government subsidies and tax-exempt status to be able to operate, she said.
“At the end of the day, these assets need to function just like any other venture,” said Pelant.
Pelant and Deia Brower, a housing navigator, work with many of the people that are in affordable housing or looking to be through Island County Human Services’ Housing Support Center.
People with qualifying incomes work as school staff, bank tellers, retail workers, county employees and health care providers.
The lack of options for these types of workers has contributed to the delay of a drug treatment center in Freeland. American Behavioral Health Systems is set to open a Medicaid-funded, substance-use-disorder treatment facility, but it is missing a critical position, according to a recruiter from the organization.
She said the facility lacks a chemical dependency counselor, which is the “bread and butter” of the operation. After two rounds of head hunting, she hasn’t been able to find a qualified person on the island or one who would relocate.
Some candidates cited housing availability and affordability as reasons for not taking the position, she said.
Spokeswoman Nicole Green said one interested candidate originally said she would relocate but changed her mind after an unsuccessful search to find rent comparable to what she pays in Bothell.
The starting wage in this position is $25 an hour, the recruiter said.
While doing stakeholder interviews for the housing element update, county staff found workforce housing was a particular issue for many industries, especially farms, according to reports on the interviews.
There are a number of public housing options currently on the island, but these units typically have a one- to two-year waiting list, Pelant said.
Pelant and Brower said most of the households they work with are from the island or have very strong ties to it. Brower said many are retired veterans and seniors whose rent has been raised and they can’t afford to stay where they are.
Young people on the island are struggling too, they said.
Brower said she recently helped a 35-year-old woman living on Social Security who couldn’t afford to pay her rent because she had to spend the money on food. Pelant said she’d just recently received a call from a young couple with a child.
The father works full-time and the mother is on disability; they are struggling after their rent was set to increase and they haven’t been able to find somewhere else to live. Pelant said the father was looking for another job.
“We’re having people work two or three jobs to cover their rent,” Brower said.
These type of situations are why Johnson says the government has to get involved in the housing market.
Not everyone agrees on this strategy. County planning commission Beth Munson has said in meetings that if the county encourages development at all levels, then supply and demand will bring down prices.
Johnson said she believes housing is so expensive because of government regulations and therefore it has to step in so people don’t “fall through the cracks.”
“We have to deal with the ramifications and help the people who live within the framework that exists,” she said. “But mostly, I just want people to be kind to one another, and the government can’t regulate that.”