Residents find a sense of community at Eernisse


Staff Writer

When Karissa Jones, 5, and her sister Savannah, 2, open their bedroom curtains in the morning, they have an unobstructed view of a pasture with two horses in it — something they didn’t have before their family moved into one of the Eernisse Apartments last year.

Their parents, Brandon and Lea, were born and raised on Vashon but moved off the Island to be closer to Brandon’s job as a landscaper for Seattle parks and recreation. They quickly regretted their decision, however, and were stuck in a high-priced, small apartment in West Seattle — next to the loading dock of a 24-hour Safeway.

Today, they pay half as much rent for a brand-new apartment on Vashon.

It was only good timing that landed them one of the highly coveted affordable apartments.

Because of the sky-high cost of living on and off the Island, they relegated themselves to living with Lea’s family on the south end of the Island for a brief time — neither close to Brandon’s work nor suitable for the young family.

“This was our only opportunity to come back to Vashon and be able to afford it,” Brandon said. “As soon as we heard about it, we ran for it.”

And within a month, the Jones family had a two-bedroom apartment, a far cry from living with Lea’s family, 10 to a house.

The Eernisse Apartments are 26 townhouse-style units, 13 of which are “very low income” — residents pay only 30 percent of their income in rent. The rents of the other 13 units are set below market rate. There are 75 residents in Eernisse, 34 of whom are under 18. Six of the residents are seniors.

The apartments are the fifth project by Vashon HouseHold, the only nonprofit housing developer on Vashon. The homes are located behind Island Lumber just off Bank Road. The apartments all curve in towards a woodsy wetlands area that is fenced off. Each one has a front porch, designed thus to encourage community, staff said.

And in what organizers say is a real sign that the new project is working, six months after the development opened, several residents have found jobs in downtown Vashon — at Subway, Thriftway, Sawbones, Splash, The Hardware Store Restaurant and True Value, said Jeri Nickell, the on-site manager of Eernisse.

The townhouses have provided the community with some much-needed affordable housing as well as downtown with a job force — a mutually beneficial relationship, said Melinda Sontgerath, president of the Vashon-Maury Island Chamber of Commerce and owner of The Hardware Store Restaurant and Splash.

“They’re nice, they’re affordable, and they’re fantastic,” she said. “I think it’s a benefit to the community to have it there, and of course for any of the businesses uptown, it’s great for their employees so they can walk to work.”

When the Eernisse Apartments were first announced in classified ads in The Beachcomber, people camped out at the Vashon HouseHold office the night before applications were accepted. Their popularity, some said, was indicative of the fact that the Eernisse Apartments filled a need — family-friendly affordable housing.

“I think the message I’m getting from most people living there is that they’re delighted to be living there,” said Sam Hendricks, Vashon HouseHold’s executive director. “And most importantly, they’re stable housing in an income bracket that there just isn’t a lot of. Stable housing is a basic human need.”

Eernisse was a giant leap forward for Vashon HouseHold, comprising half of the organization’s 149 residents to date. Hendricks said in the coming three years, Vashon HouseHold plans homes for 134 more people, which would bring the total number of Islanders housed by the organization to 283.

Hendricks said the Eernisse residents bring vibrancy to their neighborhood.

“They’re store clerks, they’re nonprofit employees, they’re health care workers, they’re restaurant employees, they’re artists, they’re our neighbors and our friends and our colleagues,” he said. “And what this is about is not just preserving the diversity of the Island, but also about contributing to the economic diversity of the Island. Because people live in our housing, they’re able to work on this Island and contribute to the well-being of Island businesses.”

He said Eernisse had a lot of single-parent families, and those parents networked and spent time together at the complex.

“You go over there and you’re not there for five minutes before you see kids riding their bikes and jumping all over the play structures,” Hendricks said. “It’s got a very strong sense of community.”

One Eernisse resident, Julie Tower, is a brand-new Islander, but she agrees that the atmosphere in her complex is very welcoming.

“Eernisse’s a really great community to live in,” Tower said. “I wouldn’t change it for the world, as far as the apartment, the management and the landscape, and my two neighbors right here.”

Tower and her children moved to Vashon without knowing anything about the Island. She heard about the Eernisse apartments through King County housing and chose them almost on a whim — since she hadn’t heard of them, she figured there wouldn’t be much competition for them.

The family moved from Los Angeles last March and had been staying in various Seattle area family shelters — including confidential shelters — as part of her effort to get away from an abusive relationship, she said.

But the shelters were far from ideal, Tower said — not only did she have to be home by a certain hour, meaning she couldn’t work late night shifts, but when she was gone, she would have to hire a babysitter, even though her kids are 11, 13 and 17. And the family shared a kitchen and bathroom with seven other families.

“It was hectic,” Tower said. “It was hard living.”

She stressed that Nickell had been very accommodating and always goes the extra mile in her job as manager. One suggestion she had for the Eernisse development, however, was a basketball court, for her sons Franky and Jonathon.

“There’s really nothing for the bigger older kids to do,” she said.

The Jones family said they have also felt comfortable in the community so far and look forward to getting to know their neighbors better in the summer.

And both Lea and Brandon were effusive in their praise of the upkeep of the apartment.

“Anything that has been even a tiny bit wrong, they have fixed it,” Lea said. “That is something that I have been amazed by, compared to other apartments I have lived in.”

Tower doesn’t have a car, but she doesn’t need one. She was hired as the closing manager at Subway and now walks to work.

She takes the bus wherever she needs to go, except on Sundays when there is no bus service.

The Jones family has a car, but it broke down a month ago, and it hasn’t been a hassle getting around, Brandon reported.

The only thing he misses about Seattle is that there are more buses, he said.

“But we deal with it,” he said. “Other than that, I see enough of it to know that I don’t miss a single bit of it.”

“We love this place,” Brandon said. “Being born and raised on Vashon, I’ve never heard of an option as good as it.”