Creating the community we want post-pandemic starts now

Housing Hub

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Imagine that in five years “affordable housing” is no longer a hot topic in Jefferson County. Some indicators we had fixed the problem would be: businesses and nonprofits are thriving and able to hire a strong and stable workforce, individuals and families are paying an appropriate amount on their monthly housing costs (currently half of renters in Jefferson County are burdened by the cost of their housing), and we have a healthy rental-vacancy-rate of about 6% (it currently hovers around 1%) -— which means there is enough housing for everyone.

Now imagine this current moment was the turning point that made such a future attainable. What would need to have changed during the pandemic and recovery period for that to be possible?

When I asked a friend this question, she responded: “There would be fewer unoccupied houses.” Jefferson County’s 2018 Comprehensive Plan reports that about a quarter of local housing units are usually vacant. Some of those homes are owned by people who vacation here and will not read this. But another portion are owned by people who live locally and have additional units that are either chronically vacant or used as vacation rentals. During our COVID-19 recovery it is possible to imagine a decrease in tourism alongside a clear need for a stable workforce will lead to a flood of vacation rentals being transformed into residential rentals.

Another friend answered, “Some landlords would have to lower rents.” The price of a rental can be touchy. Various factors are at play, from real costs such as maintenance and mortgages to intangible forces like the market, which currently favors landlords. Many local landlords already keep their rentals below market rate, deciding to prioritize the stability and health of their tenants over getting as much return as possible. This is a key moment for landlords to reassess the real cost of a rental versus the value that can be extracted based on limited supply.

My own answer to this question -— what would need to change -— is there would be a collective attitude shift toward the value of housing. We would need to see it as the foundation of a community. The pandemic has exposed how our collective health is interwoven with the health of our ‘essential workers;’ meanwhile the closures and cancellations are highlighting how essential all our workers are — from dental hygienists and construction laborers to teachers and event creators.

We are also internalizing the importance of having a home more strongly than ever. As we recognize all essential workers need homes, perhaps we can come to see housing as a community asset and property owners as the stewards of those assets.

People might act differently under that paradigm, both in the ways mentioned above, as well as owner-financed selling of homes to locals, donating properties to local housing organizations in estate plans and increased financial support of housing agencies. If we want to emerge from this pandemic into an intergenerational, economically and socially diverse, year-round, vibrant community, we have to start building the foundation for that community now.

(Justine Gonzalez-Berg is the Network Weaver for Housing Solutions Network and a trustee for Homeward Bound Community Land Trust.)

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HarveyW

The powers that be in Jefferson County and Port Townsend have a huge role to play in affordable housing. We all individually can also have an impact, more of an impact if some restrictions were thoughtfully revised.

Banking and loan requirements have changed in the last 12 years since 2008 that make what was possible impossible. An example. Or several.

I was able starting in 2003 or so to use equity at local (really local with less underwriter restrictions) Mariner Bank, which became Kitsap Bank, to put very affordable ADU (auxiliary dwelling unit) sized new double mobile homes out of sight on 3, 10 acre side by side parcels. I also put one out of sight from my main home on another 10 acre parcel I live on to offset my mortgage expenses. That is a total of 4 affordable homes created by a moderate income person. A larger main home could be built on each of the other 3 parcels, or the mobiles moved and utilities used for a stick built home, so as an investment all worked well.

The limiting factor for more affordable units in my case is that the owner must occupy any parcel to build a second home of any size. That stopped me from adding 3 additional clean and new affordable homes. Another factor in affordability was simple and functional septic systems that were around $3,000 compared to the often required overbuilt and designed $30,000 systems. In PT and the County permitting and development costs have skyrocketed. Some aspects can be lowered.

My other focus is protecting forest land, so on my own I preserved the vast majority of the 40 acres of land these homes were on. If allowed 2 carefully placed mobile homes on each piece of property, I would have and am willing to mitigate any small development with setting aside large green space and preserved forest. The homes pay to conserve the land. Those who prefer stick built can crunch numbers and see if that works in specific cases.

There is much more detail, but simply put many County land owners can add an ADU, add to the affordable housing available, and perhaps also set aside some green space at the same time. The city and County requiring expensive overkill systems and permitting costs can push a viable project into non viable. The County could also look into how to tax second affordable rental homes to encourage not discourage their construction.

Of course site specific needs must be taken into account. I heard one County Commissioner was on board with changing septic design overkill. That person seems to have hit the wall in changing septic requirements. In local politics what some say, and what they can do to facilitate change can be very different.

Does this virus change anything? Are we seeing things at all differently in politics? I now have the land for 5 affordable housing units, in a very nice setting that can be preserved for generations. I don't need huge grants or a project that runs into the red. I have already proved the viability.

Costs today are more than 17 years ago. So is rent to keep up with property taxes. Some costs can be lowered. Some restrictions can be lifted with mitigation. Some speak the words. Some take the action. Change at your County Commissioner and PT City levels is needed.

If one dumb ass self employed woodworker like myself could do what I did, and am grateful for having been allowed to do, why can't smart people figure out the ins and outs of financing on a true local level, address permitting problems and lower costs when possible? There may be barriers placed that are simply there to prevent actual affordable housing here. In my specific case there could be more affordable housing and protected forest. I have developed affordable housing and conserved the majority of my forest, and found a wall. Permit and banking wise. Banks these days won't deal with me and see only liability in a positive cash flow asset growing scenario. Perhaps that aspect goes far beyond local.

Harvey Windle

Wednesday, May 20