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Part IV: Affordable Housing: The Future of Affordability in San Juan County

San Juan County Series: The need for affordable housing is a widespread and growing issue – not just in the Islands, but throughout the region and nation. The San Juan Islands are home to multiple organizations working to create long-term affordable housing opportunities via a variety of solutions. Whether islanders are looking to purchase a permanently affordable home, rent at a lower monthly rate, or build a home from scratch, the need is great, and the response is robust. Leaders from several organizations shared their insights on the housing crisis, the Home Fund, and the future of affordability in San Juan County.

More Than an Island Issue 

The San Juans are not unique with their struggle for affordable housing. Lisa Byers, OPAL Land Trust’s Executive Director since 1996, has been a key player in the affordable housing game for over 25 years and has watched the same conversations cycle through the years.

 

“There seems to be a much broader understanding that there’s a problem with housing now, but the question still remains how to address it,” she said. “We are trying to address at a local level, a problem that is caused at a macro level.”

Byers points to income inequality, second and third homeowners, and the basic principles of supply and demand.  

“People from around the world can purchase property here, but our wages are based on a tourism-driven economy which doesn’t in any way match real estate prices.”

This is true of many beautiful, vacation destinations. Hawaii, Sedona and Jackson Hole face similar problems. But the San Juans have one important advantage – “We have a limited number of tools in our tool bag,” said Byers, “and the Home Fund is one of them.”

The Home Fund 

San Juan County’s Department of Health and Community Services stewards the Home Fund – a real estate excise tax-funded program (REET) to develop and preserve affordable housing in San Juan County. It is the first and only of its kind in Washington State. Over the voter-approved 12-year tax period, the San Juan County Home Fund was projected to generate $15.2 million. Just four years in, the fund has generated over $10 million – already outpacing initial estimates.

On October 11, 2022, San Juan County Council voted unanimously to approve the most recent Home Fund Awards to the tune of $3.5 million. Newly funded projects include OPAL’s Kidder Lane project on Orcas, Lopez Village North, and Fisherman Bay Curve on Lopez.

“We wouldn’t be able to do these projects without the County,” said John Taylor, the co-chair of Housing Lopez. “The REET funds are key to our ability to move forward quickly. Otherwise, we’d most likely still be raising money.”

The San Juan Community Home Trust has used the Home Fund to support two projects so far – including the new development on Price Street named HolliWalk.

“A lot of people don’t realize we are one of the few counties with a REET that grants us our own local powers to fund projects,” explained Amanda Eichelberger, the Executive Director of the San Juan Community Home Trust. “Understanding the impact its having is the best way to continue advocating for it.”

Housing the Next Generation

“One thing that’s often overlooked when talking about affordable housing is the health of our children,” said Sandy Bishop, who has served as the Executive Director of the Lopez Community Land Trust (LCLT) for 25 years. “When they move from a trailer in the woods to a neighborhood, it changes their mental health in ways immeasurable.”

Leyna Lavinthal has seen this change firsthand in her thirteen-year-old son, Benji. Lavinthal and her family moved into the Fishbay Cottages near the heart of Lopez Village – an affordable housing neighborhood built by Housing Lopez in 2021. Since their move, the once-concerned mother has watched her son make new friendships, pick up new hobbies, and come into his own.

“Benji feels like he’s the king of Lopez now that we live in town and he has this new-found independence,” Lavinthal said. “He goes to the skatepark and the beach with friends.   It’s just been so good for his mental health.”

LCLT notes that stable housing not only contributes to mental health, but also allows residents to be more fully engaged in their passions, hobbies, and businesses.  

“That’s one of the reasons why Lopez Village is so wonderful – many of the local business owners are LCLT residents and have the freedom to focus on their passions and their businesses because they’re securely housed,” said Breton Carter, Assistant Director for the LCLT.

“One day, Benji announced, ‘Moving to the village was the best decision I’ve ever made,’” Lavinthal recalled with a laugh. “It was the perfect thing for a 13-year-old to say. We just cracked up.”

A Foundation for the Future 

Since its inception, the Home Fund has helped create over 100 housing units Countywide. Today, with multiple housing projects in various stages of planning, permitting, and construction, there’s much to look forward to.

“It’s an exciting time to be working in affordable housing in the County,” shared Ryan Page, Housing Program Coordinator. “We just keep learning and getting better, and now we are creating a strong, multi-year development pipeline for projects on all three of the major islands.”

One exciting project on the horizon could add an estimated 40 new units to downtown Friday Harbor. Though still in the initial planning and development phases, San Juan County and the Town are partnering on the Argyle Lot Project.

“The Argyle project has been brewing for some time now as the County and the Town of Friday Harbor have tried to take a measured and thoughtful approach to the potential development,” said Page. “The potential for the project to provide affordable housing to Town residents is terrific, and the goal is to create a project that everyone can be really proud of.”

The County is currently in the midst of a Request for Qualifications process to identify a developer to partner with the County on the project. The parcel is owned by the County, but once the appropriate developer is identified the County will likely enter a long-term lease and development agreement so that the County is not the developer on the project but maintains oversight to ensure long-term affordability and proper stewardship.

“We know the challenge before us, San Juan County has the least affordable housing in the state,” said Page. “But we also have strong, experienced, and dedicated non-profit developers working to create affordable housing. And we have a community spirit which does not shy away from working on difficult problems.”

San Juan County remains committed to playing its part in developing long-term solutions for long-term affordability. Learn more about the Home Fund and other affordable housing initiatives here: https://www.sanjuanco.com/896/Affordable-Housing 

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