Vashon HouseHold charts a new course

Skip Luhr says he may have ended up homeless had he not landed at Mukai Commons. - Leslie Brown/staff photo
Skip Luhr says he may have ended up homeless had he not landed at Mukai Commons.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/staff photo

Skip Luhr lives in a tiny apartment crammed with books, and from the looks of it, there’s not quite enough room for both him and his extensive library. Encyclopedias, novels, dictionaries, even textbooks from his days as an engineering student line nearly every wall of his small unit.

But Luhr, 68, is not complaining, nor is he clamoring for a bigger apartment. A resident of the new Mukai Commons — Vashon HouseHold’s latest project — Luhr said he feels grateful he has a decent place to live. He moved to the complex five years ago, shortly after his beloved wife Sharon “Sam” Luhr died, and made do in a substandard unit — with its leaky roof, drafty windows and rot so extensive it’s amazing, some say, that the building didn’t collapse.

Now, after Vashon HouseHold purchased the property and invested more than $1.8 million rehabbing it, the once-delipidated complex gleams. And under Vashon HouseHold’s ownership, Luhr, who’s on a limited income due to health and financial problems, has seen his rent fall considerably.

“I don’t know how they do it,” he said of the affordable housing organization. “They’ve been wonderful. ... I hope they can continue to perform their miracles.”

Mukai Commons is Vashon HouseHold’s latest project, and those close to the organization say it represents a milestone in the agency’s 21-year history. With this project, the organization is housing some of the Island’s poorest residents — people who likely would be homeless if not for the project. One resident, a single man, pays $110 a month for his newly remodeled unit.

What’s more, Vashon HouseHold is teaming up with the Island’s leading social services agency, Vashon Youth & Family Services, creating the kind of partnership that some say is essential to support people facing a range of tough issues. Tenants, as a result, are not only getting a roof over their heads — they’re also receiving mental health support, if needed, job counseling, financial planning and other services.

Joy Goldstein, a long-time housing advocate who was on Vashon HouseHold’s first board, said the project reflects the agency’s growth as an organization — a confidence, she said, that she didn’t see in its early days.

“When they first started out, the board wanted to be very cautious about the kinds of people they served,” she said. “They felt, with some validity, that it’d be hard to get backing from the community if they served homeless people.”

So instead, the organization focused on creating affordable housing for the elderly and those with disabilities, as well as providing avenues to home ownership for working families who couldn’t afford Vashon’s high home prices. Vashon HouseHold’s Ernissee Apartment complex, completed three years ago, reflects the agency’s move towards housing families on limited incomes.

Now at Mukai Commons, 14 of the 20 units — far more than the project’s funding requires — are housing people who were considered marginally housed, on the verge of homelessness or, indeed, without a roof over their heads. And social services, as needed, are part of the package.

Last week, Vashon HouseHold staff, board and supporters gathered in the last of the complex’s units to be rehabbed and celebrated the project’s completion. Several said they were pleased by what’s been accomplished.

“I’m amazed, not only by how lovely the transformation is but also by how it’s possible to bring all these resources together to fund something like this,” said Ellen Call, a board member.

The agency’s public financing for the project required that five units be set aside for those who are homeless or considered marginally housed. That 14 units house people who fit that category says much about the extent of the need, said Nancy Vanderpool with Vashon’s Interfaith Council to Prevent Homelessness.

“We’re so grateful,” she added. “We have people housed who we didn’t know if they’d ever get housed.”

Luhr, a former Pemco computer programmer who owned a home and raised his family on Vashon, said he was surprised to find himself in a situation where he needed so much help. A combination of poor investments and a hospitalization that led to some brain damage put him into a vulnerable spot, he said

Last year, he suddenly discovered his money had run out and that he didn’t have enough left to pay rent. Had the building not been owned by Vashon HouseHold at the time, he said, “I don’t know what I would have done.”

But staff at Vashon HouseHold got him to Vashon Youth & Family Services, where the agency found some funds to help him pay his rent. Staff then helped him fill out the extensive paperwork, and he now pays a fraction of his former rent.

Classical music played in the background as he talked. A game of Solitaire was on his computer monitor. Smiling amiably as he stood among his hundreds of books, he said he feels as though his life has taken a good turn.

“Maybe I’ll continue to feel better,” he said.

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