A meeting last week drew both critics and supporters of the proposed affordable housing project Vashon HouseHold plans to build south of town.
Chris Szala, Executive Director of Vashon HouseHold, addressed approximately 22 people gathered at the Methodist church last Thursday for updates about the five apartment buildings the nonprofit plans to construct on the corner of SW 188th Street and Vashon Highway with county and state funding. Supporters of the Island Center Homes project voiced their approval of any attempt to bring affordable housing to Vashon. Critics cited concerns about the complex’s impact on traffic, the cost to build it and the residents who would live there.
Officials from the King County Department of Community and Human Services were supposed to attend but pulled out at the last minute due to a scheduling conflict. Instead, next month they will talk about amending the broader county comprehensive land management plan to reflect other potential changes slated for the island. That meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday, July 18, at Vashon High School.
Island Center Homes is a county demonstration project; it will be used to test and evaluate alternative development standards county-wide, a process that could lead to changes in policies and regulations surrounding similar projects, Szala said. Each of the development’s two-story buildings would contain eight single-occupancy micro-apartments with their own private bathroom, sink, small refrigerator and microwave.
The 1.3-acre site, outside of the town core, is zoned R-8, meaning that up to eight detached buildings, or dwelling units, can be constructed there, contingent on water availability.
The site was previously allocated five water units, allowing for the use of roughly 4,000 gallons a day, administered by Water District 19.
Island Center Homes is intended to serve 40 people with islanders given priority, including seniors, veterans and those who are homeless, as well as people with chronic mental illness and developmental disabilities. Residents won’t be able to share their space with a partner as a condition of their lease agreement, but guests will be permitted for a limited time.
To qualify for residency, tenants must earn 30 percent of the median income or less, or around $26,000 a year, according to Szala. He rejected the notion that the development will house people who do not contribute to the island in a meaningful way after a member of the audience asked how many units would be reserved for “the working poor.”
“We have homeless people who work, who are couch surfing and otherwise,” he said. “How do you define that? We have developmentally disabled people on the island who are working. They’re adding to society, too.”
Szala said he believes the residents will blend as well as those living in any community do — issues are inevitable, but he said he is confident the arrangement will be a success.
To see that it will be, King County also awarded the agency funding to provide for a social worker who would help residents maintain their Social Security benefits, mitigate conflicts and promote what he called “supportive housing.”
The development is estimated to cost $6.2 million. The King County Housing Finance Program, which provides capital funding for affordable housing developments, awarded Vashon HouseHold $3.1 million in December, and the agency will apply for additional funding from the state in September.
Some critics have insisted that better accommodations suiting the needs of low-income islanders can be built at a fraction of the cost, in keeping with the rural character of Vashon.
Szala, however, has indicated in previous conversations that given the numerous requirements attached to public funding, the price tag for the project is modest.
Szala said that the 66-year-old apartment building now standing on the parcel where Island Center Homes would be built cannot be rehabilitated, calling it “extremely substandard housing” that is not compliant with current building standards.
Vashon HouseHold purchased the property from Len Lofland in 2018 for $700,000, according to county records.
Critics have alleged that approximately 24 people were living at that address until they were displaced when Vashon HouseHold purchased the lot, all for the development to serve no more than 40 people in total, calling it a negligible and expensive increase to the availability of affordable housing on the island.
In a phone conversation, Jackie Moynahan, assistant division director of the Housing Finance Program, said the county awarded funding on the condition that the development would house vulnerable populations in the community, following a request for information from unincorporated areas last year.
“In our region, we have a need for lots of different [types] of housing; we have lots of different populations that require housing, and it’s very rare that we see a new housing development on Vashon,” she said.
Moynahan added that the level of funding from the county and size of the project is small compared to investments outside of unincorporated areas, attributing costs to the island’s remoteness and other variables.
“Part of the interesting thing to us is that it’s a different model and maximizes the ability to deliver housing for people who really need it,” she said.
Several in attendance at the meeting shared concerns about parking and traffic, with the intersection at 188th Street and Vashon Highway being especially busy at different times as drivers travel to and from nearby Sawbones and the Open Space for Arts & Community.
Szala said county and state officials would scrutinize the traffic pattern. He added that a blind spot at Sunflower, one of Vashon HouseHold’s affordable housing developments, forced engineers to lower the road to ensure pedestrian safety at a significant expense to the agency.
The current plan calls for 16 parking spaces on-site at Island Center Homes. Szala said he believes that number will be sufficient, as he expects not all of the residents will own cars.
One prevailing concern about the Island Center Homes development has been about water usage.
Water District 19 issued a Certificate of Water Availability (CWA) for the project in April. In a public meeting last winter, the district rescinded the CWA it originally issued after an islander complained that it had not followed its own residential policies to provide it.
Neither the district’s residential or commercial property policies originally aligned with the Island Center Homes project micro-housing model, but after officials at the Department of Local Services recently reclassified the project to fit within the district’s present policies, commissioners moved ahead to issue the new CWA.
“Above all, there’s more than enough water,” said Jim McRae of Water District 19 in a phone conversation.
A previous engineer’s report about water usage showed that the project would use approximately 3.5 water units, less than the five that the property has.
The King County Council’s 2017 Vashon Subarea Plan, which was created to guide development on the island over the next 20 years, states that one critical challenge facing Vashon is the lack of affordable housing for low-income residents in the area designated as the Rural Town.
In the plan, the rural town extends from the corner of SW Cove Road past Cemetery Road and includes the parcel where the Island Center Homes project is envisioned.
Szala acknowledged that it is the intention of Vashon HouseHold to maximize the buildable density allowed by current zoning on the Island Center Homes property. But some critics argue that building the complex within the corridor between town and Center would violate policy LU-4 of the subarea plan, which protects that area from being overdeveloped.
LU-4 asserts that in order to maintain a distinct separation between both hubs of the island, “denser multi-family, commercial or industrial uses” are all discouraged there.
However, the subarea plan also includes wording that conflicts with those guidelines, stating that “new multi-family residential, commercial and industrial uses” should be implemented within the rural town in accordance with current zoning.
Island Center Homes would be in that corridor and the rural town simultaneously, seemingly at a crossroads.
King County Council Chair Joe McDermott said that the Vashon subarea plan is not meant to be taken as gospel.
“The subarea plan certainly provides direction for land use, but didn’t become underlying law,” he said, adding that it was the council’s intention to honor it as much as possible.
McDermott said that as the subarea plan was being drafted, many islanders were adamant that greater flexibility around housing would go a long way toward combating the rising cost of living on Vashon. According to his statistics, the island population increased by approximately 900 people during the last 10 years. Fewer than 30 new dwelling units were constructed between 2010 to 2015.
McDermott added that the council opposes overtaking the Vashon town core with high-density development, but he does not anticipate that will occur.
“If things started happening that were out of character and not intended, we have an annual review built in” to address any overuse, misuse or concerns, he said.
Under county zoning code, demonstration projects such as Island Center Homes must be consistent with the county comprehensive plan, which lists exploring the construction of multi-family micro-housing in unincorporated areas as a priority action.
“It’s an opportunity, a limited opportunity, to try something that we think meets policy objectives but [that we] want to be careful about implementing too broadly, in case of other consequences we haven’t considered,” McDermott said.
Vashon HouseHold will host another meeting about the project later this fall.