During our spate of January-in-June weather, I have spent some time indoors snuggling with demographic and economic data about our Rock from the 2020 Census and other research.
What really struck me is this: We added almost 11% more people to Island County in the last 10 years, but we added fewer than 5% more places to live.
That should tell you why homes have soared in value and rents have hit the stratosphere. And why our politicians are clamoring to say they really, really are trying to add more affordable housing — with few notable results so far. The housing that has been built in the last 10 years is mostly new single family homes with very high prices. If you examine all the housing currently on our Rock, 81% of it is single family homes. That compares to 67% in Washington state. Only 11% of our housing is multi-family versus 27% in the state. “Multi-family” is a polite euphemism for apartments, which some folks would rather not have in their neighborhood.
A few more demographics to make the picture in the mirror a bit clearer. On the Rock, we are older on average than our state and nation: 44.1 years in Island County, 37.8 years in Washington and 38.2 years in the nation. And when you break the age brackets down on the island from north to south, the average in North Whidbey (thanks to the Navy) is 32. Central Whidbey’s average is 55 and South Whidbey’s is 56. And if you delve even deeper by town, Clinton is the codger spot on the Rock, average age 62. Langley is 57, Freeland is 55, Coupeville is 53 and Oak Harbor is a frisky 30.
We are evenly split between women and men, although to be precise there are 0.2% more women than men here. There are 2.3 Rock dwellers per housing unit versus 2.5 in the state and 2.6 in the nation. And 61% of us are married — well above the national average of 53% and the state average of 42%. We really like to cuddle and share this beautiful place with our special someones.
Our median household income is about $71,000 per year, less than the state average of $77,000 but well above the national average of $65,000. The percentage living in poverty is 7.6%, compared with 10.2% in the state and 12.8% in the nation. Not as rich as the rest of our state but also not as poor.
Of course it’s no surprise that the federal government is the largest employer on our Rock, with about 7,400 active duty Navy personnel and another 2,400 civilian contractors. The largest private employer is Boeing with nearly 900 employees who live here — which helps explain the ever-growing Clinton ferry line backup. Oak Harbor schools and WhidbeyHealth each have more than 700 employees, but after those two the number of workers at other employers drops to well below 200.
In other words, our Rock economy is made up mostly of small businesses. And, if you do enough shopping you’ll know this is very true: There are almost as many small businesses here owned by women as men.
In analyzing our population by age groups, I was struck by something that affects how our economy grows — or doesn’t. According to the latest census, about 20% of us are between 1 and 20 years old. Another 25% is between 20 and 40. But then it drops. Only 22% of us are between 40 and 60. The remaining 33% are over 60.
What that tells me is that people hit a cement ceiling in terms of job advancement on our Rock. They get decent first jobs but when the time comes for promotions and growth with an organization, it often doesn’t happen. The result? People in their 40s and 50s don’t live here. They have moved away for better jobs and pay.
You won’t hear that from Navy contractors or Boeing workers, of course. But ask just about anybody else who works on the Rock. Those 40-to-60 folks are the usually the ones with the highest disposable incomes. Their disappearance deprives the Rock economy of considerable local spending at stores and restaurants as well as charitable contributions, among other things.
So, maybe about now all this data is making your eyes cross. All these numbers paint a complex picture of where we live. The bottom line for me is this: To keep this gorgeous island as wonderful a place to live as we know it today, we need to figure out how to accommodate more people without ruining the open-space, healthy, rural environment we love.
Harry Anderson is a retired journalist who worked for the Los Angeles Times and lives in Central Whidbey.