Housing concerns top list of issues at meeting with Sen. Murray

Sen. Patty Murray listens to local leaders about problems in Island County. - Brian Kelly / The Record
Sen. Patty Murray listens to local leaders about problems in Island County.
— image credit: Brian Kelly / The Record

Fallout from the subprime mortgage crisis will eventually hit Washington and Island County and could impact everyone from students trying to get a college loan to people who want a bank loan to remodel their homes, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray told leaders from across Island County at a special meeting last week.

Murray met with the Island County Council of Governments last Wednesday, and said that while the subprime mortgage meltdown has not hit this state as hard as others, the impact of the crisis will eventually be felt here.

“We’re pretty fortunate in Washington state that we have not been hit with the huge subprime issues that L.A., Michigan and some of the states back east have. There are neighborhoods that have gone under.

“But we do have literally thousands of mortgage holders today who are going to be hit,” Murray said. “I have been saying for a decade that housing is a silent crisis in this country. And now it’s no longer silent. It’s pretty loud and it’s pretty damaging.”

The senator’s meeting with county officials in Coupeville last week was the first major visit to Whidbey for Murray, a Democrat, since a trip last September to tour Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve.

The cost of housing quickly became the dominant issue at the Council of Governments gathering, a meeting that included Langley Mayor Paul Samuelson, Oak Harbor Mayor Jim Slowik, Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conrad and county commissioners Mac McDowell and John Dean.

Also in attendance were Steve Gulliford, executive director of the Housing Authority of Island County, Sheriff Mark Brown, Sharon Hart, executive director of the Island County Economic Development Council, Port of Coupeville Commissioner Ann McDonald and Sarah Richards, president of the Central Whidbey Chamber of Commerce.

For county leaders, it was a chance to press issues of local concern. Housing topped the list.

Helen Price Johnson, a South Whidbey School Board member and a candidate for county commissioner, told Murray the school district would have trouble bringing in new teachers because of the high cost of housing.

“As the South Whidbey, and Island County in general, population gets older and property values go up, it is harder for young families to stay in our district. We’re seeing a dramatic drop in our enrollment,” Price Johnson said.

Housing prices will continue to climb, and fewer higher-paying jobs will be available for those who want to live on Whidbey.

“Housing is going to be a critical issue for us as employers,” Price Johnson said. “We have a wonderful teaching force that has been with us for a long time. And as they retire, the entering salary that the state allows new teachers will not support the housing market on South Whidbey. It won’t work.

“The need is going to grow exponentially, I think, for us,” Price Johnson said.

Murray said the same problem exists elsewhere.

“That’s what we hear in King County,” Murray said. Lower housing costs elsewhere have increased people’s commutes, but there is a limit to how far people can drive to work.

“Where are you supposed to live, Monroe?” Murray asked.

On the subprime mortgage crisis, the senator said she was taking action to help lessen the blow to families at risk of foreclosure.

She recalled her work on the Foreclosure Prevention Act, and the more than $180 million in funding for housing counseling.

People need quick help to avoid trouble, Murray said.

“We expect approximately 2 million homeowners this year to go into foreclosure,” she said. “But they don’t have to. If they get counseling when they start finding themselves getting into that credit crunch, there are numerous programs and options.”

Banks and lending institutions are reaching out to help, as well, Murray said.

“Getting that counseling ahead of time is absolutely critical,” she said.

The senator said she has heard the credit crunch that’s coming behind the subprime crisis will be substantial, and could hit people trying to get student and car loans, and even small bank loans for remodeling projects. That will hurt the sputtering economy, she said.

“These are serious concerns. And

I have to tell you: I’ve had bankers at the table, I’ve talked to Wall Street people; no one has a solution for this.

“None of us want to do a huge federal bailout, I mean, a lot of this is people’s personal decisions,” she said.

Recalling how the country rallied after the Soviet Union caught the world’s attention with its launch of Sputnik more than 50 years ago, Murray said the U.S. needs a similar effort to invest in America’s infrastructure.

“I hope that our country wakes up and says we’ve got to invest in ourselves if we want to be competitive in this global marketplace,” she said.

Local officials covered a laundry list of issues during the one-hour meeting with Murray, from high gas prices, to the rise in ID theft crimes, to cuts in federal housing subsidies. Many also urged Murray’s support for funding for a new maintenance facility that’s needed by Island Transit.

Transportation was also a key issue, and Murray acknowledged the impact to the economy caused by the shutdown of ferry service last year to the Olympic Peninsula.

“I’ve been working at the federal level to make sure we get funding for ferries. It’s part of our highway system, and of course, part of our infrastructure,” she said.

Local leaders also updated the senator on work to start passenger ferry service between Coupeville and Camano Island.

McDonald said the biggest hurdle was to find a place to use for landings on Camano Island, and added that a private company, Victoria Express, had expressed interest in operating a route.

“We’re a long way from being done in any way, but we have made those steps,” McDonald said.

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