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Vashon Island grapples with affordable housing shortage

By Heidi Groover, The Seattle Times
Published: September 3, 2023, 6:02am

VASHON ISLAND — A full-time employed couple squeezes with two young children into an RV that’s now their home.

The owner of a small market converts space above her business into apartments that rent out in hours.

A kindergarten teacher worries her students could leave the school if their family is forced to move.

All over Vashon Island are signs of a brewing housing crisis as longtime residents and new transplants alike struggle to afford soaring costs, and businesses — even the U.S. Postal Service — scramble to find and keep staff. Some longtime residents have left the island; others worry rising costs are threatening the identity and economy of a place where artists and service workers were once able to cobble together a life removed from the bustle of nearby cities.

The island of 11,000 is just a brief ferry ride from Seattle or Tacoma, but not connected by a bridge. That limited accessibility, to some residents’ relief, protects the island’s rural feel with swaths of farmland. But there are drawbacks.

Like many small towns all over America, the housing challenges once associated with fast-growing cities like Seattle are reaching Vashon, where the costs of rentals and homes for sale have shot up by double-digit percentages since before the pandemic.

Housing has always been somewhat scarce on the island, but now a tighter market, a growing vacation and tourism economy, and hourly wages that don’t keep up with housing costs are making finding and keeping a place to live all the more difficult. There are few apartment buildings, and the costs of renting a single-family home can stretch beyond hourly workers’ budgets. Buying can be out of the question.

While some single people and couples can make do with a single room or a backyard cottage, families with kids struggle to afford the space they need. And, enticed by high land values, single-family homeowners renting out their houses may opt to sell, leaving their renters once again on the hunt.

To cope, renters search for rooms, backyard cottages and houses through desperate posts on social media and word-of-mouth. Businesses run shuttle buses to the ferry terminals for the growing share of off-island employees, or rely on teenagers and college students who can live with their families. Affordable-housing organizations juggle long waitlists.

Some on the island worry that an inability for middle-class residents to find housing could pose an existential threat to a tight-knit community long known for its counterculture streak.

“If the people who work here can’t live here, then it’s a dead-end economy,” said Michael Bowden, an 18-year Vashon resident with sleeves of tattoos on both arms and a T-shirt bearing the island’s name, who works as general manager of Island Queen, a burger and ice cream spot on the island’s main drag. “If there’s nobody to bag your groceries or make your cheeseburger, it doesn’t work.”

Bowden, 49, and his wife, who works at another restaurant down the street, have been forced to move five times in the last 10 years as landlords sold or converted their properties. The couple’s latest find, through friends of friends, happened only “by sheer willpower,” Bowden said.

“It progressively gets harder every time. There is less available and more people looking at the same time, and nobody is really building anything new.”

Climbing prices

Over the years, Vashon Island has drawn people with its natural beauty and bounty.

Indigenous people, including ancestors of the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, lived and relied on the 13-mile-long island long before European settlers farmed, fished and logged there in the 1800s. By the early 1900s, Vashon was also home to successful Japanese farmers who were then forced to leave their farms when they were incarcerated during World War II.

In the past 50 years, the mostly white community became a haven for artists, small-scale farmers and those looking to live communally or trade labor for rent. The island drew a reputation for hippies, anti-vaxxers (now a dwindling contingent) and progressives looking for a rural outpost.

Over the past decade or two, the same forces driving up housing costs from Everett to Enumclaw have pushed up prices on Vashon Island: a shortage of homes for rent and for sale — exacerbated on the island by limited water that corrals development — and, more recently, an influx of remote workers looking to relocate their home offices to more idyllic pastures.

“Folks from Seattle, Tacoma [and] Bellevue have realized they can live on Vashon and have that island lifestyle,” said Clay Gleb, whose family owns the island’s Thriftway grocery store.

“That helps our business. That’s more customers for us,” Gleb said. “But on the flip side it’s less housing available for people [who] could potentially work for us.”

The challenge also reflects the island’s unique transition over the past several decades from dependence on manufacturing jobs to heavier reliance on vacationers and tourists, residents say. Homegrown ski and snowboard manufacturer K2 shifted many production jobs to China starting in the late ‘90s, and in 2006 left Vashon entirely. Seattle Coffee Co., which operated Seattle’s Best Coffee, closed its roasting plant on the island in 2003.

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With that shift, workers may instead turn to jobs in tourism, retail and the service industry, whose pay often can’t keep up with housing costs.

Even manufacturing jobs don’t always keep up. At Sawbones, one of the island’s largest employers where workers mold lifelike models of human bones for medical training, pay for entry-level positions is up from about $15 an hour a few years ago to between $18 and $20 now, said HR manager Kit Gruver, “yet that is nowhere near what people need in order to live on the island.”

Housing market data on the island comes with the caveat that the number of rentals and homes for sale is small, meaning outliers can skew the numbers. That said, the average home value on Vashon is now nearly $900,000, up 36% from $662,000 in 2019, according to Zillow estimates. The median single-family home sold last month went for $755,500, up 17%, according to separate data from the Northwest Multiple Listing Service. (Median means half sold for more and half for less.)

Rents have soared, too. Residents paid a median rent of $1,500 in 2021, up 33% from 2019, according to the latest available census data. The price of a newly listed rental, particularly a single-family home, is typically higher. The median cost of all Vashon rentals currently listed on Zillow — just nine options total this past week — is $3,500.

Ever since renter Susan Madden moved to Vashon in the mid-1990s, the island has felt like somewhere she could live on odd jobs as a gardener, petsitter and retail worker.

“I’ve cobbled my life together for many, many years and on Vashon it worked,” said Madden, who is 71.

But when she lost an affordable cabin rental this spring, she struggled for months to find a new place that fit her budget and her needs. With vacation homes and short-term rentals, Madden said the island now feels like “there’s so much real estate locked up.”

At the north end of the island, just next to the ferry terminal, the owners of the Wild Mermaid market have taken things into their own hands. They converted office space upstairs into apartments.

“We knew [they] would rent as permanent rentals in like 5 seconds,” said co-owner Megan Hastings. When she posted an available studio apartment in a Facebook group, she heard from “30 people in the span of a couple of hours.”

“It’s pretty overwhelming,” she said. “The demand is so high.”

Some residents struggle even more, living in tucked away tents and substandard properties. A one-night count in 2020, the latest available, found 147 people living homeless, said Hilary Emmer, board president at Vashon’s Interfaith Council to Prevent Homelessness.

“While we have a lot of rich people on this island,” she said, “we have a lot of people struggling.”

Full-time work, living in an RV

At Sawbones, Leandra Godfrey and her partner were both grateful to find full-time work this summer.

But stable work doesn’t guarantee stability.

“My biggest concern is housing,” said Godfrey, a soft-spoken 37-year-old who helps plan and schedule production at the manufacturing plant.

Unable to afford a rental, Godfrey, her partner, and their 6- and 8-year-old daughters for now live in a 36-foot RV on a friend-of-a-friend’s property while they try to get their footing in the community where Godfrey spent part of her childhood.

Godfrey lived on Vashon until her family moved away when she was a teenager. Recently, Godfrey, her partner and kids lived in southern Utah, where the “pay is half of what it is here, but rental prices down there have skyrocketed” and they ended up in the RV after their landlord sold their rental.

Godfrey wanted to return to Vashon for higher wages and to show her kids the natural beauty of the Northwest. But the cost of moving last month sapped the family’s savings. And despite landing full-time jobs, they’re struggling to find a home they could rent on their current wages of around $20 to $23 an hour each.

Space in the travel trailer is cramped, with books, clothes, family photo albums and paperwork slipped into every bit of limited storage space. Godfrey said she misses her two sons, 13 and 17, who are staying with family and friends because there isn’t space in the trailer. “How do you tell your kids, ‘I’m sorry, I just don’t have room for you now?’”

She works mornings and he works evenings so they can care for their younger children, avoid paying for child care and save that money for housing instead. They rarely see each other during the week, “just in passing at work and swapping kids,” she said. But Godfrey is working hard to stay positive as they search for housing, hopeful they’ll catch a break soon.

With common requirements for renters to earn three times’ the monthly rent, the couple estimates they can afford a rental costing about $2,400 for their family of six. The monthly rent for most three- and four-bedroom homes they’ve found ranges from $2,600 to $3,700, they said.

“You shouldn’t have a two-parent household that works full time and still can’t make it work,” Godfrey said.

Denser options

County planners are considering ways to spur more housing development, fueling anxiety from some residents who worry that either the changes could threaten Vashon’s rural character or that the effort could fall short of what the community really needs.

Vashon has a voluntary incentive program that allows developers to build denser housing in town if the project is 100% affordable units. In the six years since that program began, no developers have used the policy to build new affordable housing. King County, which governs land use on the island because it is unincorporated, proposes replacing that with a program that would allow mixed-income buildings to tap into extra density. Building heights would still be limited to 35 feet, or about three stories, in town.

The option to pay fees instead of building units on-site is controversial, with some people on the island worrying that because development is so rare there, the program wouldn’t generate enough money to actually fund new affordable housing on Vashon.

“We need housing that’s affordable by the people who are working here in lower paying jobs,” said Diane Emerson, president of the Vashon-Maury Community Council, which passed a resolution opposing the fee option. “If it were market rate, you’d get in really wealthy people who could afford anything they wanted to.”

In other unincorporated areas of King County where the county has already applied the new rules, developers must get approval on a case-by-case basis to pay the fee and at least one affordable unit must be built on site. The rules say the fees would be used to create affordable housing in the same area as the original project and require developers to show that paying the fee “provides the same number and quality affordable housing units as those provided on site.”

The county is still considering public feedback and legal issues around allowing the fees in lieu of on-site housing, said Comprehensive Planning Manager Chris Jensen, who declined to offer more details about the potential legal challenges to doing away with the fee option.

County planners also hope to encourage more duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes as part of changes that would apply to all residential zones in unincorporated areas of the county. Those changes would streamline permitting for so-called “missing middle housing.”

The county hopes those denser-housing options could be more affordable for people who make too much money for the most deeply subsidized rental apartments but still struggle to afford buying a house.

Reactions to the proposals have been mixed on Vashon.

Some welcome the shift, eager for more affordable options. Others worry about water availability or fear any new development could fundamentally change the feel of the island. During an online public meeting this summer, one resident worried the changes could make Vashon look “exactly like downtown West Seattle.”

Others are concerned that even the proposed changes won’t be enough to draw new housing development to the island. Permitting delays and limited sewer and water capacity keep a check on certain development. And just getting materials and work crews to an island can add costs.

“Right now, the bigger threat is not that we will become [like] West Seattle,” said Amy Drayer, executive director of the Vashon Island Chamber of Commerce. “It is that we don’t even have the infrastructure we need to start building anything at all.”

Emmer, with the Interfaith Council, would like to see the county expedite permitting for affordable housing and make it easier to build accessory dwelling units.

“Any addition to stock is going to help,” she said.

Hundreds waiting

Just down the street from Sawbones, an empty lot is undergoing a transformation.

At the site, five new buildings will house eight small studio apartments each for people with very low incomes, including those experiencing homelessness.

The $12 million, 40-unit Island Center Homes development is expected to open late next year, an urgently needed addition paid for largely by government funds.

But the need far outmatches the number of new homes. Vashon HouseHold, an affordable-housing nonprofit that is leading the project, has a list of at least 300 households in need of housing.

The nonprofit has long focused on building for people with the lowest incomes, but Executive Director Jason Johnson says the reality of the island’s squeeze is pushing him to look for more opportunities to provide housing for people who make moderate incomes but still can’t afford private-market costs.

The organization recently bought an apartment building off the private market to preserve as affordable. The newest tenant works the night shift at a grocery store. Another organization, Shelter America Group, has secured funding for a 40-unit workforce housing project on the island, the Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber reported last week.

But those projects can be harder to make happen, with less government money available to help fund them, posing an ongoing challenge for Vashon.

Residents of all incomes want a certain “level of service” on the island, Johnson said.

“You want to go to the grocery store [and] the post office,” he said. “All of that is at risk if we can’t provide housing for that workforce.”