In an encouraging sign for local housing, island affordable housing nonprofit Vashon HouseHold has once again opened its waitlist to islanders looking for a place to live.
The waitlist is the first step for people seeking to rent a place through the organization. It records a person’s age, household size, income and criminal history (the latter of which is not a disqualifier) to find them the right fit among Vashon HouseHold’s many properties.
But the organization closed its waitlist in 2021, Vashon HouseHold executive director Jason Johnson said, as the roster had accumulated hundreds of interested names — and Vashon HouseHold had nowhere near enough turnover or new units to help them. Keeping it open would have only given “false hope” to the monumental number of people seeking housing, Johnson said, and the organization needed time to whittle the list down.
“People had been waiting since 2017,” he said.
By the end of last year, Vashon HouseHold had shrunk that waitlist down to only a handful of households — 2023 especially was a “year of transition,” Johnson said. Many units opened up, from home sales in Sunflower and Roseballen, and several rental units turned over.
Now, with projects like the 40-unit Island Center Homes on the horizon and the Home Share program taking off, the organization is ready to open the floodgates again. The waitlist opened on Jan. 29. Vashon HouseHold received more than 100 applications in the first week, Johnson said, which was expected.
How long the waitlist stays open to the public will depend on how many people apply, he said, and Vashon HouseHold will likely close the waitlist again when it fills up. Johnson said that’s typical practice for housing organizations.
Matching people with homes will still be a deliberate process requiring patience, cautioned Johnson.
“We’re trying to be really clear that just because we’re opening our application process … it doesn’t mean that housing is imminently available,” he said.
The housing supply will be helped, however, by the organization’s 40-unit housing project, Island Center Homes, on 188th and Vashon Highway SW, Johnson said. It is scheduled for construction completion in October, with the finishing touches coming in November.
Once that project is ready for tenants in late 2024, it will serve people making 30% or less of the area median income, veterans, seniors, people who have experienced homelessness, people using the behavioral health system, and adults with developmental disabilities — all drawn from the organization’s waitlist.
“This year, with the opening of that project, we know we’re going to be able to house more people than in a typical year,” he said.
Meanwhile, Vashon HouseHold has finished installing a new roof and insulation, put on a new coat of paint and improved fire safety in its rehabilitation of the nine-unit, fully-occupied Charter House apartments. They’ve done that work without needing to temporarily remove any of the tenants, Johnson said.
The following phases of rehabbing the space will give each unit individual stair access and updates to electrical, plumbing, kitchens and bathrooms.
Traditional housing isn’t the organization’s only card up its sleeve.
For decades, Vashon HouseHold has served as a provider of affordable housing for low and medium-income earners, and a connector for those people to other island social support services.
But even “below market rent” — which, by Vashon Island standards, can equate to roughly $1,000 per month for a single person — may not always cut it.
That means other creative solutions are also necessary, such as the organization’s Home Share program, which launched last year — inspired by similar efforts in Tacoma. Vashon HouseHold’s Osha Christianson coordinates the program.
Home Share connects homeowners with an extra bed and room to people who are willing to help out around the house — say, cleaning dishes or mowing the lawn — in exchange for cheaper rent. Over 2023, the Vashon program made 11 matches — meaning 11 homeowners filled a room, helping them keep their house, and 11 people found housing they could afford.
“It’s hugely gratifying” to see that success, Christianson said. The program put a roof over heads, including island workers, and served several aging or disabled people with the help, companionship and income they needed to keep their homes, too.
It’s a landlord-tenant relationship, not an employer-employee relationship, Johnson said. The work is part of the lease, not an occupation. The program is best suited for people who have a steady yet limited income or a set of skills to offer, Christianson said.
Rewarding for Johnson is the fact that through the program, Vashon HouseHold can help house people without the drawn-out, expensive process of actually building or permitting new homes, or playing landlord itself: “We’re making connections — that’s really all we’re doing.”
“I love the intergenerational stories that come up, where a younger person who’s maybe a barista or works at Thriftway, is partnered up with a senior,” Johnson said.
The program’s success stories also included a home provider who turned their short-term rental into a long-term rental, Christianson and Johnson said.
“I don’t want all short-term rentals to go away, because Vashon thrives on tourism,” Christianson said. “That’s not what I’m trying to do. But we do need to create more housing so that the working people who keep this island going can continue to do that.”
This year, they aim to make 15 more matches, serving at least 30 islanders.