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Run-in with King county over codes highlights affordable housing crisis

Last week, King County officials gave Island landlord Gene Amondson a final verdict on the four unpermitted low-cost housing units on his property: His renters have to move out by July 31.

Amondson has one small approved “auxiliary dwelling unit,” as these additional premises are called in county code. But he will have to get permits for the four studio apartments in the back of his property — two in a red converted garage and two in a duplex — and convert them to “living quarters,” which means he’ll have to tear their stoves out and get an approved septic system, with one tank for all four units as opposed to the multiple tanks he has now.

Living quarters can include TV rooms, office spaces and living rooms, but cannot have kitchens or bedrooms and are not meant to be lived or slept in every night. And Amondson cannot rent them out.

To those who worry about affordable housing, the imminent loss of Amondson’s units is a blow to the Island. According to Emma Amiad, president of the Interfaith Council on Homelessness, Amondson’s plight underscores a deeper problem on the Island — the scarcity of affordable and low-income housing at a time when more and more Islanders are forced off-Island by the high rents here.

“Now they’re going to be scrambling to find somewhere they can afford to live, and this is happening a lot on the Island,” she said of Amondson’s tenants. “The whole force of gentrification is happening a lot on the Island. Where are our workers going to live? The guy that fixes your car, the girl that waits on you in the restaurant, gardeners, checkers in the grocery store — where are all these people going to live?”

Amondson, known to many Islanders because of his long-standing crusade for sobriety, has owned the property on Vashon Highway, just across the street from Vashon High School and directly south of the Old Country Store, for 31 years.

A blue two-story home, built a century ago, stands closest to the road, down a dirt driveway marked by several life-sized figures carved out of wood. Sheryl Lux, a code enforcement officer for the county’s Department of Development and Environmental Services, completed an extensive report on the residences on the property and ultimately determined that four of the units were out of line with county codes.

In February 2007, she gave Amondson a legal decision that the four rear units in the garage and duplex could not be used as primary residences. Amondson appealed the decision, pushing for a zoning change to allow the duplex and converted garage rental units on his property, Lux said.

“The decision was made that there really isn’t a zoning change that could be made that would allow what is on his property,” Lux said. “At this point in time, what we are requiring him to do is tear down the structures or get them permitted as a legal use.”

The King County Council decided not to hear Amondson’s appeal to have his parcel rezoned to house multiple residential structures in April.

“At this point, he’s out of options to appeal,” Lux said.

Behind the house is an approved auxiliary dwelling unit — a small one-room building called the “Quaker house” — which has proper permits and was built in 1955.

The red garage was built in 1993 — as a garage and storage building, Lux said — and subdivided into two studio apartments without proper process in the years following. Amondson lives in one of those two units.

It is a stipulation of accessory dwelling units that their landlords live on-site, but since Amondson will have to move out of his current dwelling, he said he’ll likely purchase a mobile home to live in.

The final residence on the property is a duplex that was erected in 1975 without county approval, Lux said.

She expressed some doubt in Amondson’s plan to obtain permits for all four units to be approved as living quarters.

His other options are to seek permits for the spaces to be designated heated storage spaces, in which case he’d need to remove their plumbing. The next step down, she said, is to have the buildings designated unheated storage spaces, or he could tear the buildings down entirely.

Amondson said he’d like to keep the buildings’ options open, and is optimistic that they’ll be approved for use as living quarters.

Amiad said the board of the Interfaith Council on Homelessness is helping Amondson in the permitting process to get his structures approved as living quarters.

Amondson said the loss of his units is doing a disservice to his tenants, several of whom he took in without requiring a deposit because they could not afford to pay one.

“Our renters will have a hard time finding a place, because rent is high,” Amondson said. “It hurts everybody. It hurts me because that’s how I make a living and it hurts them — some of them were pretty desperate when they came to me.”

Amiad said middle- and upper-class Islanders may be unaware of the housing crisis on the Island and the struggle to survive in a community where the cost of living is so high. She suggested a radical wake-up call.

“I’d like to see everybody who makes less than $30 an hour not show up to work for a week and see what happens,” she said. “The community will come to a halt. Just see how well you’re going to operate your community without those people.”

She said because those enforcing county housing codes had become so efficient, unofficial housing units are being removed regularly.

For low-income individuals and families, low-income retirees and people on social security or disability, she said, “it’s becoming difficult to impossible to find housing” on Vashon.

Other states have recognized that rapid population growth has outpaced development in some cases, making auxiliary housing units an attractive option. California has designated auxiliary dwelling units legal on all properties as long as the space can support the structure, Amiad said.

“I believe everybody who has the space and the water and the septic system should be able to put an (auxiliary dwelling unit) on their property,” she said.

She said she understood that county codes needed to be enforced, but in her mind, an unpermitted home is still a roof over someone’s head — and that’s a good thing.

Amiad said Lux’s job is to enforce the law and to get rid of substandard and unpermitted buildings, but that has the unfortunate effect of removing housing units on Vashon.

“The fact that she’s doing a good job and that that results in the loss of our lowest income housing in some cases is a tragic byproduct,” she said.

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