Jim Marsh, the executive director of the Vashon-Maury Island Chamber of Commerce, said he hears from island businesses weekly that it’s hard to find and retain hired help.
The reasons, he said, vary, despite offers of competitive wages and good benefits. From the sparse labor pool to the cost of living on Vashon — increasingly prohibitive for many who can’t find housing outside of an Airbnb, much less anything they can afford — attracting new employees is often a zero-sum game when it’s not possible for them to get by and live in the community where they work.
“It’s hard to make a living on this island working for an hourly wage,” Marsh said.
Though officials have made strides in recent years to address the growing housing shortage across King County and proposals are in place to help close the widening gap as part of the 2020 midpoint update to the county’s comprehensive plan, some islanders say the situation doesn’t look to be getting better quickly enough.
There are currently two affordable housing projects underway on Vashon. Those include island-based Shelter America’s Creekside Village apartment complex on Gorsuch Road, and Vashon HouseHold’s Island Center Homes, proposed for a lot at the corner of Vashon Highway and SW 188th street. Consisting of five single-family buildings with eight units each, the project aims to provide micro-apartments for 40 people, including formerly homeless individuals, veterans, seniors and those with special needs.
Part of the comprehensive plan update is to explore the construction of multi-family micro-housing in unincorporated areas, and Vashon is one experimental subject, in addition to a micro-housing concept in White Center. Island Center Homes is a county demonstration project meant to test and evaluate alternative building standards county-wide. It awaits further permitting to proceed on some of its most distinguishing elements such as a 15,000-gallon rain bank and adjacent water garden to collect runoff for use with flushing toilets and irrigation. But similar projects in the future promoting permanent alternative housing models could depend on whether the King County Council moves to adopt the amendments to the comprehensive plan and the efforts within it to address the issues of homelessness and affordable housing in the Puget Sound region. That decision is expected in June. Vashon HouseHold hopes to break ground on Island Center Homes in July.
Board members of Vashon HouseHold acknowledged at a meeting earlier this month that such development may come as a shock to islanders who are not used to witnessing it near the town core. But residents have called for more workforce housing to be built for individuals and families for years, with some arguing that it will go a long way toward supporting the island’s hourly workers who are needed to fill service positions that historically experience high turnover.
Walking through town on any given day past Vashon’s many shops and eateries, prospective job hunters can take their pick of unfilled positions. James’s Hair Design is looking for a licensed stylist. There are “Help Wanted” signs in the windows of the Chevron Gas Station and Sporty’s. Paces away, Gravy is hiring for all positions. On Internet job boards posted throughout the year, Sawbones searches for mold makers and Vashon Community Care advertises for part and full-time medical assistants starting at $18 an hour. The island’s United States Postal Service office is hiring mail carriers and distribution associates. The USPS makes a significant push to hire clerks during the holidays to help with the surge of deliveries at that time.
Marsh said that many businesses on Vashon particularly struggle to find coverage for seasonal work.
“That’s our food trucks, restaurants and any business that is busy during the summer, including our tasting rooms when they do the harvesting, so we have some seasonal issues as well,” he said.
Jennifer Harvey, owner of the Island Queen restaurant, said in an email that her business is in the midst of hiring and training new staff ahead of the busy summer season. Her employees run the gambit from established restaurant professionals to high school students working their first jobs. She noted that hiring for restaurants is notoriously challenging anywhere, but the island poses extra challenges, including limited housing and transportation options.
“Welcome to the wonders of owning a restaurant on Vashon, we’re always hiring,” she wrote.
Elaine Ott-Rocheford, executive director of the Vashon Park District, said hiring seasonal help has always been a challenge for the district. Last year, the district budgeted to hire two seasonal maintenance workers at $20 an hour — a significant increase from the $15 an hour wage offered in years past — but received no applicants. She added that the district routinely encounters the problem of finding seasonal employees year after year, from lifeguards at the community pool and housekeepers for The Belle Baldwin House at Fern Cove Park and the Keepers’ Quarters at Point Robinson, to county grant-funded staff at the Burton Adventure Recreation Park on the weekends.
“The bottom line is, it’s kind of widespread for us with all of our part-time help,” she said, noting that the odd hours may not work with every schedule but may be beneficial for those looking to supplement their income.
Marsh added that rising minimum wages have also had a pernicious effect on the cost of doing business everywhere while still being necessary to provide for employees’ basic needs, coupled by the fact that high school students, who Marsh said are a great resource for many businesses on the island, often move on after they graduate.
“You can hire somebody who’s never had a job for $15 an hour, and somebody who’s had a job for a while who was making $18 [an hour] before the hike is now closer to the minimum wage than before, so you need to hike their rate up or lose them,” he said. “But if the rates hadn’t gone up, businesses could have lost employees. So that’s another piece.”
Marsh said he has heard stories from before his time that the K2 Corporation, formerly based on the island, once operated a shuttle bus to meet their employees who commuted from off-island at the ferry docks, ready to take them to their shift and back again. But he said that to do that would require an economy of scale that, alone, most island businesses do not have.
“We need to find a way to make the cost of living accessible to folks. But there’s only so much we can do for that, or we need to find ways to attract, make it worthwhile for people to come over,” he said.
At Vashon Thriftway, job applications for multiple positions are available to pick up in the front lobby of the store. Manager Clay Gleb said that when strong applicants emerge, management often hires them even if there aren’t openings in the department they had expressed interest in. That’s because, he said, the store is limited by its location when it comes to hiring, and it’s worth holding onto people who could contribute where a need surfaces later, rather than hoping the same candidate will come along when it counts.
“We just kind of feel like we need to pull a person like that in earlier rather than waiting until the last minute,” Gleb said, adding that Thriftway spends more on labor than comparable stores, notably on new hires. Gleb said the average wage for new employees at Thriftway is nearly $20 an hour.
“Although there’s only so much we can do and still be able to make the numbers work,” he said.
The higher wages, Gleb said, are intended to help employees afford Vashon’s high rents — when there are apartments available. Gleb said he believes the lack of affordable rentals on the island has made it hard to find and keep employees at the store, a problem that has worsened during the last two or three years.
In the last five years, he said, the number of those who commute to work at the store from off-island has gone up exponentially, from around 5% to between 10 and 20%.
“It’s really changed a lot,” he said, commending those employees who are willing to travel.
For the Island Center Homes project, Chris Szala, executive director of Vashon HouseHold, said he was in county councilmember Joe McDermott’s office last week to work out issues around permitting. The agency has spent all of its pre-development money pushing the project through the department of local services permitting division, recently obtaining a master permit at a cost of $27,000 to build the five structures. Remaining barriers include final approval for the rain bank, adding an additional fire hydrant with a greater capacity than the one nearby, and code requirements that may mean the agency will have to widen SW 188th Street at a considerable expense. For the Sunflower project several years ago, Bank Road needed to be lowered at a cost of $472,000, delaying construction. Board members are hoping it doesn’t come to that again.
Szala acknowledged that some islanders hold out hope that the county will change the way it regulates accessory dwelling units (ADUs) such as attached or detached in-law suites or backyard cottages as part of the comprehensive plan update, believing it will increase the availability of housing on Vashon. That effort was driven in large part by islanders during the subarea planning process the county led on Vashon in 2017.
But he said that to add an ADU on a property, between dealing with issues such as septic system limitations and building to code, it isn’t a practical enough solution to solve the problem. Szala said the minimum price tag for building a basic, complete unit could range anywhere from $50,000 to $150,000 or more. He suspects that eventually, most landlords will be unable to rent the space at a price that is actually affordable to the people who need it, whereas heavily subsidized developments such as those by Vashon HouseHold are intended to provide more affordable housing in perpetuity for the life of the property.
“Nobody is going to destroy the value of their house [following] a covenant like ‘keep your ADU affordable for 50 years,” he said, noting the agency’s waiting list for housing. “What people don’t like is density. That’s just what it comes down to. But unfortunately, nationwide, [increasing density is] the only way that you’re going to be able to deal with the affordable housing crisis.”
Szala said that includes building more apartments in downtown Vashon, where he said greater availability of housing could help general populations that need housing on Vashon now, including young adults and seniors.
“I’m a heretic for saying that,” he said, noting that island businesses could benefit from the additional patronage more residents bring, infusing even greater vibrancy in the town core. “I think it would be great.”
For his part, Marsh said that dealing with the hiring problem on Vashon as a community is the island’s best chance for success. He noted that there were a handful of empty storefronts in town when he first began at the chamber in 2007. Now there is only one: The Red Bicycle restaurant, which closed in January. Meanwhile, demand for commercial kitchen space, he said, has never been higher, and new businesses are opening all the time.
“There’s no easy solution for this,” he said, “but the stronger our economy is, and the stronger our businesses are, the more they’ll be able to provide employees with the things that they need to sustain themselves.”