Jason Johnson on water and Vashon’s housing crisis

Providers of water and affordable housing have a lot in common.

Editor’s note: A December article in The Beachcomber, shared from the Vashon Nature Center, covered an ongoing debate on the island: Does Vashon have enough water? Key to that question is whether conservative approaches to managing the island’s water supply are stifling efforts to build more affordable housing. The December article approached the question from the water point of view.

This week, as part of a series on water and housing by the Vashon Groundwater Protection Committee Member Mary Bruno, we look at the question from the affordable housing side.

Providers of water and affordable housing have a lot in common.

Finding and delivering potable water to hundreds of households in a reliable, affordable way is complicated. Finding properly zoned land and the money to buy, build, and manage affordable housing units on it is no picnic either, especially in this time of skyrocketing property values, higher interest rates, and galloping gentrification.

This interview features insight into the affordable housing universe from Jason Johnson, executive director of the nonprofit Vashon HouseHold (VHH), which has been creating affordable housing on the Island since 1990. The VHH Board of Directors announced in late April an ambitious goal to double their portfolio of affordable housing by 2034 — hoping to add at least 150 more units onto their existing 126 units.

A longer version of this article appears online at vashonbeachcomber.com.

Mary Bruno: You grew up in publicly funded affordable housing in Boulder, Colorado, and have spent most of your career running affordable housing programs in the public and nonprofit sectors. You were the Director of Seattle’s Human Services Department before coming to Vashon Household (VHH) in May 2022. How did you wind up out here?

Jason Johnson: Vashon Household was on my radar. As the head of [Seattle’s Human Services Department], we were looking all over the world for solutions to homelessness and housing affordability. And right here, this beautiful, small Island community was doing what folks in Europe and in the American South and on the East Coast were doing: Community Land Trusts. When VHH had an opening for executive director, I jumped at the chance to work here.

Mary Bruno: VHH has three Community Land Trust developments in its portfolio: Roseballen, Sunflower and Vashon Cohousing. What exactly is a Community Land Trust?

Jason Johnson: It’s a program model where a nonprofit organization like ours purchases land and develops housing. We then sell those homes — on Vashon, we’ve built single-family homes — to new, low-income homeowners, who purchase the home and lease the land. As a nonprofit, we don’t have to pay taxes on the land so that helps to reduce the cost of the housing.

We have equity protections on each home, meaning that a home can only grow [in value] by 3.5 percent a year, maximum. It can never devalue. We align the growth per year to the Consumer Price Index (CPI). That controls the amount of equity the homeowner can recapture should they sell. But most importantly it protects the home’s price from market fluctuations and keeps it affordable year after year.

Given Vashon’s affordable housing track record, you came with high expectations. Has Vashon met those expectations?

This community recognizes that there’s a housing crisis, and that we’re the local nonprofit that can help. I’ve worked in Seattle and all across south King County. I’ve seen NIMBY-ism in many forms, and I’m really not seeing it here. Our organization has been embraced, especially over the past year, in a way that it has not seen before. More people are subscribing to our newsletter and making charitable donations. More businesses are sponsoring our work. We have our Island Center Homes project under development, 40 units on Vashon Highway that will open at the end of this year. We just launched a home-share program, which matches homeowners [who have spaces to rent] with folks who need them. We keep hearing from more and more owners and renters who want to find a match.

So, yes, Vashon has met my expectations.

You’ve used the word “crisis” to describe the current shortage of affordable housing. Are we really at the stage?

The crisis word is appropriate. The last affordable housing completed on Vashon was done by VHH in 2017. That was the Sunflower Community Land Trust, which added 14 more affordable homes. And [the crisis] is not just here on Vashon. Western Washington has not kept pace with the housing need. That’s especially true in smaller rural communities. But there’s something unique happening here on Vashon where housing that was historically affordable and accessible is no longer either. It has been purchased and repurposed by folks who now own really nice second and third homes here in this community — homes that used to be a permanent address for someone.

What’s the current disparity between the available supply of affordable housing (to buy or rent) and the demand?

We just opened our housing waitlist on Monday, January 29. It had been closed since 2021, but as a courtesy, we’ve been collecting the names, numbers and emails of people who come into our office, or call, or email us. In the three years we had that wait list closed we had more than 300 people reach out to us. Even though it says on our website that the wait list is closed, they still reached out. So the 100 people a year number is probably low, but it’s the best available data we have. It gives me an indication that we’re a good 300 [units] shy.

How do you define “affordable?”

We provide housing for low- and moderate-income groups. There are populations on the island that need deeply affordable housing. They’re folks who make less than $28,000 a year. There’s also a workforce group: teacher’s aides, folks who work at the clinic, grocery stores, hardware stores, skilled carpenters, and landscapers. People making $70,650 or less. They need help with housing too.

What stands in the way of creating more affordable housing?

I put water at the top of the list. It is a major factor when Vashon HouseHold looks at future development opportunities. Water limitations and the costs associated with accessing water, and also managing stormwater and drainage, are one of the first hurdles to clear when we consider a property. If there’s no water, everything stops.

There are also hurdles around density. We’re always trying to figure out how many units we can legally fit onto a plot of land. This community is really embracing VHH and our mission. That said, if we are seen as hogging all the water or changing the rural character or culture of this island by increasing density to a level that starts to make people nervous, that will change.

So you’re walking a fine line.

That’s why conversations about water and density are really important for our organization. My orientation is, let’s build as much housing as possible. Now, that runs counter to other people’s values around water conservation and preserving the rural character of the island. Understanding the limits and seeing how far you can get before you cross those limits is a really good exercise for me as a housing champion. Those conversations don’t take away my motivation to get as many people housed as possible. They keep me aligned with the values of this community.

What about funding?

Funding is always an issue, but there are state and county programs that we know how to access.

Most affordable housing is built in Vashon Town Center. That comes with possibilities and frustrations. Friendlier zoning, but limited water availability.

We develop in Vashon Town because we have the most zoning allowability there. As we venture out from town, maybe zoning would become the number one hurdle. Not to mention connectivity, transportation, that sort of thing.

On zoning and density, there is a path forward. We know how to change code. It takes a long time and a lot of work, but we know how to do that. Same with community will and attitudes. If you have a relationship with the community you’re serving you can have a back and forth that helps to meld ideas. The community can help me adjust my expectations, and vice versa.

But water? I’ve always worked in Seattle where you just plug into the pipe, pay your capacity fee and you’re off, right? Working in this community that’s so, rightfully, environmentally concerned and doesn’t have the infrastructure, is a new route for me. Board members will hear about a property coming up for sale, or more likely homeowners or landowners contact us before something goes on the market. It may be a property with a single home and a single water share. It may be an empty property with no water share. That’s why the first conversation we have to have whenever we consider a housing project is: Do we have access to water?

Has the water constraint changed the way you design projects?

We did some back-of-the-envelope water analysis using our J.G. Commons building. [J.G. Commons, on 96th Place SW, was built in 2003 for low-income seniors. It features 21, one-bedroom apartments, with a common kitchen and laundry room.] Based on water usage there we figured that with one water share, and the right kinds of toilets and appliances, we could get 12 units of multi-family housing. That’s 12 units of housing in the downtown core with one water share. [Note: a “unit” is an apartment.]

Our Island Center Homes development [going up on Vashon Highway at 188th Street] is an example where we got creative with design. We have five water shares. We are building five homes. Each home will have eight small studio sleeping units, with common kitchen, living and laundry areas. This differs from our original plan to build one, 40-unit multi-family building.

You said earlier that access isn’t the only water-related challenge. There’s also the cost and complexity of managing stormwater and drainage.

Historically, we’ve built a detention pond or some kind of natural filtration system for stormwater. The county now has new regulations for multi-family developments. [For Island Center Homes] the county required us to build a large, expensive cement vault to store stormwater. That mandate came pretty late in the game. It was a huge and unexpected expense. In the affordable housing industry, we’re always looking at the per-unit cost. When you get into the $300,000-plus per unit zone it stops being so affordable. This vault really took our per-unit cost up.

How will VHH change its approach to affordable housing given growing demand and some vexing challenges (water, zoning, community support, etc.)?

The VHH board and I are always talking about the right mix of rental and home ownership. Right now we have 88 rental units with 40 under construction and 38 single-family homes for ownership. Rentals can serve our workforce. Last April we bought the Islander Apartments, a 12-unit building just down the road here. There are workers there from Thriftway and Cafe Luna, and two from Sawbones. But we need more affordable home ownership. It helps workers build some equity and keep that level of stability that comes with owning a home. It also helps local businesses that are really struggling to keep fully staffed. Historically, we’ve built single-family homes. Going forward, I would like to see VHH build duplexes, triplexes, four-plexes.

On the rental side, it’s more multi-family projects like J.G. Commons, a three-story building with one-bedroom apartments and an elevator. That’s a really good model. Island Center Homes is more like an SRO or studios. I’ll be really interested to see how attractive those are. If they’re highly sought after as a housing type, then we should do more of them.

What we’re trying to avoid is people who are left with no options that keep them on the island. A lot of the calls we take are from people in that situation. The fact that so many islanders who have loved this place and called it home have to relocate in order to have a roof overhead, that’s tough to sit with.

Next week, Mary Bruno’s interview series will continue, with local housing veteran Chris Bric talks about Creekside Village, his new, nine-year-in-the-making, workforce housing project on Gorsuch Road. Bric is the president of the nonprofit Shelter America Group.

This article is part of a series about water and affordable housing on Vashon.

Part 1: Does Vashon have enough water?

Part 2: Jason Johnson on water and Vashon’s housing crisis

Part 3: Chris Bric on water and Vashon’s housing crisis