COMMENTARY: Affordable Housing

  • Tuesday, May 22, 2018 1:43pm
  • Opinion
Diane Emerson

Diane Emerson

Affordable housing is an important issue for our community. We are especially concernedabout low-wage workers who cannot afford to live on island. Here are some ideas:

Increase wages to $15 an hour with benefits, $25 without. The most relevant research we found on this topic is The Self-Sufficiency Standard For Washington State 2017 at

This study defines the minimum income needed to realistically support a family meeting basic needs without aid from government, community or personal aid. These budgets are “bare bones,” with just enough allotted to meet basic needs, but no extras. It does not allow for any takeout or restaurant food, not even a pizza or a latte, and no savings for emergencies. For King County, that wage for a single adult is $16.18 per hour in a 40 hour a week job.

For self-employed people, like contractors, housecleaners, gardeners, and others, they need to cover many more business expenses that an employee does not have to pay, such as retirement, health care, their own sick days, business insurance, marketing and equipment. Since they can only reasonably bill around 25 hours in a 40-hour week, their hourly rate to customers needs to be at least $25 per hour for a bare-bones life on Vashon.

For employers who find it impossible to pay $15 per hour:

• Help employees find affordable housing.

• For food service employees, provide them some free food.

• Help with transportation to and from work. Set up use of the community van through the Chamber of Commerce.

• Help employees find affordable, quality daycare for their children.

• Allow employees to grow their own vegetables on the employers’ property.

For others, have a conversation with your employees. How might you be able to help that would make a difference for them?

For those of us who eat out, we can be sure to tip well, even when it is food we pick up at the counter.

Loosen County Regulations Around Compost Toilets and Greywater

Some people complain that many taxes and regulations are unnecessary and bad, and they play a big role in higher housing costs.

While we agree that some may be unnecessary, and there is room for simplifying the bureaucracy, it’s important to keep in mind that many taxes and regulations provide great benefit to us all.

Examples include taxes for schools, infrastructure improvement, transportation, rules to avoid houses sliding off the edge of a cliff and to protect the beautiful nature and wildlife that we love so much, among others. Few of these taxes and regulations play a huge role in making housing unaffordable.

One does stand out, however. King County needs to allow a combination of a compost toilet and a greywater system as an alternative to an expensive septic system for accessory dwelling units (ADUs). ADUs could be backyard cottages, apartments above a garage, tiny homes on wheels, single-wide trailers, etc.

Compost toilets are already legal in King County, but not as an acceptable alternative for a septic system. Greywater systems are not yet legal in King County, but guidelines for counties are already in place at the state level. All King county has to do to make greywater systems legal is to adopt the state guidelines.

Shared Housing

Landlords could consider renting their extra house(s) out on a room-by-room basis, which would create more affordable housing.

People who have a spare bedroom in their house could share it with someone who has similar interests and could be a delight to have around. Airbnb has been mentioned as a big culprit.

We need to change the regulations and the financial incentives to reward people who provide long-term housing. Portland has recently waived building fees up to $15,000 for homeowners agreeing to rent out their newly constructed backyard cottages, but only if they rent long-term. For use as an Airbnb, the owners have to pay all building fees.

Lower Rental Energy Costs

Landlords should make sure that they get the free energy audit offered by Puget Sound Energy and consider carrying out energy and water saving measures for their rental home, because this will reduce utility costs for tenants. This action is good for both affordable housing and to help reduce climate change. Plus, these are tax-deductible expenses.

Better Renter Screening

Some landlords charge high rents because they have had bad experiences with renters. Better screening of tenants, including checking references, can help here.

Help Island Groups

Vashon Household and the Interfaith Council to Prevent Homelessness are Vashon groups working on this issue. If you want to help with affordable housing, you could donate money to them. The interfaith council also accepts volunteers.

— Michael Laurie and Diane Emerson are Vashon residents engaged in many forms of sustainability.

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