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The latest from the census: Vashon’s a wealthier place

Vashon has become a wealthier place in the last decade, according to data recently released by the U.S. Census Bureau.

King County’s median household income has nearly kept pace with the 25 percent inflation rate, rising from $53,000 in 1999 to an estimated $65,000 in 2006 through 2010. Vashon’s median household income, however, rose 37 percent in the same time period, from about $58,000 in 1999 to an estimated $80,000 in 2006 through 2010. Vashon’s population grew about 5 percent during that time.

“You can say Vashon is trending toward somewhat higher incomes,” said Chandler Felt, King County’s demographer. “Real income has not gone up much in the last 10 years in King County or nationwide for that matter. … Vashon incomes are rising faster than inflation.”

According to 2000 U.S. Census results, in 1999 about 12 percent of Vashon households made $100,000 to $150,000 a year. According to results of the American Community Survey, a lengthy questionnaire administered by the Census Bureau to a smaller number of households, nearly twice that many homes, 22 percent, brought in that amount between 2006 and 2010.

In fact, all income brackets below $75,000 saw a decrease in number of households, while all those above $75,000 saw an increase.

Felt said he wasn’t surprised at the numbers.

“I would have expected that to a degree,” he said. “Vashon Island is not growing very fast, but the growth, as far as I can tell, tends to be relatively high-income commuters to jobs on the mainland.”

Felt added that it was important to note that while 1999 income data is based on census responses, more recent income estimates are made by combining surveys of Islanders from 2006 though 2010, with averages converted to 2010 inflated values. More recent results also have a higher margin of error than 1999 numbers because of the smaller sample size.

He said he believes the numbers are reliable as long as one considers it’s an average of a five-year time period.

“It doesn’t cover a single point in time,” Felt said. “A lot of things were happening in those fives years. There was a boom in the first part of it, a recession in the middle of it, and 2010 was a year of beginning to recover.”

Alice Larson, a social services researcher who follows Vashon demographics, agreed, saying she was unsure how accurate the most recent data is. However, Larson, who has lived on Vashon for nearly 30 years, said the numbers seemed to make sense.

“Most definitely I’ve seen a change in observable income level,” she said.

Many longtime Islanders say they don’t need census data to show that the Island has become more affluent. They’ve watched it happen for decades.

Brett Bacchus, who is 53 and works at LS Cedar, said that when he was growing up on Vashon there was a much less noticeable income gap than there is now.

“Everyone was kind of more the same on Vashon when I was a kid,” he said. “A couple people were rich and had a swimming pool, and everyone thought that was a big deal.”

Now, Bachus said, he knows plenty of people who make “a lot more money than I do.”

“Over the years, especially being in the lumber business, we’ve seen a lot of people with more money move to Vashon,” he said.

Evan Simmons, a builder who has also lived on Vashon for decades, agreed. He said the welfare department used to direct families to Vashon as an inexpensive place to live. Now, he said, there is simply a different class of people on the Island.

“Back in the 70s, it was old, beater cars,” he said. “Now it’s shiny, new cars.”

Dan Carlson, who moved to Vashon in 1980 and is now a senior lecturer of public affairs at the University of Washington, said there are likely several reasons Vashon has attracted more high-income residents in the last few decades, as well as the last 10 years.

As the Puget Sound region has grown, Vashon has become more linked to the mainland than before, with better ferry service, a passenger ferry to downtown Seattle and better phone and internet access. It’s easier than ever to live on Vashon, Carlson said, and the Island is an increasingly desirable place for those who want to live in a rural community and commute to jobs in Seattle.

“The housing prices shot up higher than the rate of inflation, so only people who had more income could seriously think of moving to Vashon,” he said.

Beth de Groen, a real estate agent who has lived on Vashon since the 1970s and now owns the Windermere office on the Island, said she watched home prices take off as Vashon became more appealing to those with well-paid jobs in Seattle. De Groen, however, doesn’t think a large number of high-income families have migrated to the Island in the last decade. Rather, she said, perhaps those who settled here have simply stayed and are now making more money.

The median age on Vashon, according to census results, rose from about 44 in 2000 to 50.2 in 2010.

“While the people who are coming here now are not necessarily wealthier, many of the people who moved here 10 to 15 years ago have become wealthier. … People who are in their early 50s are at the height of their earning power,” de Groen said.

Meanwhile, Census Bureau data shows there are also fewer Island households that fall in the lowest income brackets. In 1999, 9.6 percent of Vashon households reported that they made less than $15,000. The Census Bureau estimates that in 2006 to 2010, nearly half that number, 5.5 percent of households, brought in the same yearly amount. The $15,000 through $35,000 income bracket saw a similar sharp decline.

Ken Maaz, director of Vashon Youth & Family Services said he was troubled by the possible trend behind the numbers. It may appear that Islanders who were once considered poor are making more money now, he said, but from what he’s witnessed it’s more likely that low-income families are simply moving off the Island.

“A lot of people can’t afford to be here anymore. … I think we’ve replaced some low-income folks with high-income folks in our community,” he said.

It’s a trend he believes is unhealthy for the community.

“Any time you’re forcing someone away from a place because of their economic standing … you are taking away opportunities for difference and diversity and the things that make a community really interesting to live in. I don’t want us to become a gated community, and we may be becoming a gated community by virtue of what it costs to live here,” he said.

The low-income individuals and families who still live on Vashon are struggling more than before to make ends meet, Maaz added. In 2011, VYFS saw greater demand for social services and more requests for financial assistance and scholarships than ever before.

“I just think that those people left behind have greater need than ever,” Maaz said.

Larson, who will teach the demographics portion of Vashon College’s Vashon 101 this spring, was intrigued by the idea that Vashon’s average income is increasing and at the same time requests for financial assistance are higher than ever.

“Are we losing the middle class? I don’t know. Nationally that’s what we’re muttering about, and maybe (Vashon is) a prime example.”

Jean Bosch, another real estate agent who was the director of Vashon HouseHold, has a different take on the Island’s trend toward higher incomes. She believes that on Vashon an income gap doesn’t translate into a social gap.

“I think a lot of people realize that money creates distance and that’s not why they moved to Vashon, to have distance. They moved here to have community,” she said.

What’s more, Bosch said, many wealthy people are generous with what they have, a benevolence that continues to shape the Island.

“A lot of people contribute a lot to Vashon HouseHold, Vashon Allied Arts, the land trust — things that keep the community strong,” she said.

 

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