As housing prices continue to climb in this region, renting a home on Vashon is growing increasingly challenging, with few signs of hope for improvement in the near future.
Longer term, Vashon Household is working on a potential project with the county that could create 40 small units. And Vashon’s Shelter America Group, which announced two years ago it hopes to build “workforce” housing on a parcel of land owned by islander Mike Masi, has recently re-tooled the project and begun outreach efforts in hopes of persuading King County to provide funding for it. Last week, Shelter America’s President Christopher Bric said the property near town on Gorsuch Road is rare, with water, sewer and a patient seller, who has wanted for years to provide affordable housing.
“Someone called it the Halley’s Comet project,” he said. “Vashon won’t have an opportunity like this in the foreseeable future unless something changes dramatically.”
Recently, several island renters shared some of their stories and talked about the precariousness they feel, especially as more homeowners sell their rental properties in this seller’s market. Losing one home often means a scramble to find another at a comparable price, when there are few homes available and estimates are that the average island rent is $2,000 per month.
Claudia Hernandez is the owner of Wild Roots Catering Company and is a single mother of two children. She moved to the island from Portland about six years ago and has lived in five rental houses since then. She considers Vashon a more difficult place to find an affordable rental than the San Francisco Bay area in the 1990s, where she also lived. Her family has made sacrifices to remain on the island, and they hope to stay until her child in middle school graduates, but it is growing increasingly hard to do so.
“We always wonder if we should stay or go, but no one can offer what Vashon does,” she said.
Kirsten Eastman has lived on the island for 25 years and rented for the last 12 — in seven different houses during that time. Every time she moved, she said, her rent increased by $300 to $800 for a comparable place.
“Of course, my salary does not do that,” she added.
Eastman said that she believes she is better off than many renters on the island. She has a college degree and works as a legal assistant in downtown Seattle — a job with a good income.
Still, she spends more than 50 percent of what she earns on rent.
“People who work at the post office, Thriftway, Sawbones, I do not know how they do it,” she said.
She thinks about the many empty houses on the island, which may be used just as a summer home or for an occasional weekend and wonders if they could be put to use to help address the rental crisis.
“I look at the empty houses and the kind of rents people are asking,” she said. “There is a big disconnect between need and availability.”
The rental situation is straining not just the renters themselves, but the organizations that sometimes assist them. Last year, the Interfaith Council to Prevent Homelessness provided $100,000 — a record amount — for rental assistance and utilities, according to Emma Amiad, who is one of the nonprofit’s leaders. This type of assistance is the largest portion of the group’s budget, she said, noting that they served 253 family units last year. The vast majority of adults were employed: medical assistants, teachers, receptionists, grocery store employees and those who work for the island’s nonprofits. She noted that the math is simple. If people work for island wages, which often do not far exceed minimum wage, it is hard to pay $2,000 month in rent.
“The problem is there is no solution,” she said.
She mentioned the housing development that Shelter America’s Bric hopes to build.
“We desperately need his project,” she said.
Vashon HouseHold maintains a waiting list about 60 people deep, according to Executive Director Chris Szala, who noted that the list is closed on several of the organization’s properties. With that many people on the list, the wait for an apartment is about two years out. He noted that at least once a week, Vashon HouseHold receives a call from someone whose rental house is being sold or rent is being raised.
“There is a lot more of that now,” he added. “There are far more people calling in desperation.”
Szala, who last month shared plans for a potential housing project in connection with King County, said that project is still in its early stages but is on track. He expects the county to issue its request for proposals in mid-May, and he will respond. But he echoed Amiad when talking about the Shelter America possibility.
“We need that project,” he said.
Leaders of Vashon Youth & Family Services (VYFS) spoke similarly, saying the agency regularly deals with rental difficulties both for those who are nearly homeless and living in substandard housing as well as those who are losing their rental homes to a sale or rent increase.
In the short term, Executive Director Carol Goertzel said the island needs more rental assistance money from the county or private funders. But that type of assistance has its limits.
“Rental assistance only works if there are rentals. That is the conundrum,” said Barbara Garrett, the director of VYFS’ clinical operations. “That is the crux of the problem.”
Longer-term solutions are essential, Goertzel said, such as the potential Vashon HouseHold and Shelter America projects.
Talking last week, Bric noted that from the beginning he and others working on this project knew it would be a multi-year endeavor. In late 2016, they were turned down for money from King County, but the county asked them to try again. In the time since then, there have been some changes to the project, which includes one, two and three bedroom units. Previously, the county had required a 65-foot setback from a creek on the property, then expanded it to 165 feet. And more units were requested through the use of conservation measures.
“We have shown a very good effort to follow those leads,” Bric said.
If built, the project would be for people who earn 60 percent of the area median income or below. In 2017, that was $67,200 for an individual and $96,000 for a family of four.
“What people are learning about Vashon is that we have slipped into a crisis with our housing and that needs to be addressed,” Bric said. “We would fill this overnight, and we would fill this with islanders overnight.”
The project, known as Creekside Village, would be financed under the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program as well as conventional financing and other sources, such as the funds from the county Bric is hoping for. In 2016, when the county turned them down, he and his development partner, Bellevue-based Shelter Resources, had requested $5 million. Currently, he said the project’s budget is still in flux and he has not determined how much he will request from the county this time. Regardless, he said county funding would be pivotal.
“We know it is a big ask from the county, but we know that the county has not done a lot for Vashon in terms of housing,” he added.
Ideally, he said, he would like to see financing secured this year, design and construction started in 2019 and the project completed in 2020.
“We are going to have to be a bit of a squeaky wheel with the county to make it happen,” he said.