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Affordable housing is issue for county

Elected officials and representatives from local non-profit groups and the community met last week to begin the process of solving a growing problem in Island County: the lack of affordable housing.

Attendees took the first step in addressing solutions at Greenbank Farm when the groups identified the four main obstacles to building more affordable housing. Issues preventing the construction of apartments and multi-family dwellings include the lack of open land on which to build, zoning restrictions and a limited amount of water and sewage systems, according to Debbie Torget, who manages Goosefoot Community Fund’s affordable housing program. She said the small job market, especially in South Whidbey, was a consideration, as well.

So, with the identification of the issues, the group plans to meet again in October to discuss solutions. Torget said community members may attend the meeting to offer their input as well.

Some solutions already in discussion are pursuing more funding sources such as federal and state grants and loans, and individuals or groups buying land.

Encouraging non-profit organizations to work more cohesively with government, seniors, veterans and other community members to clearly define the affordable housing need and educate the public on the problem was also mentioned.

Whatever the group decides, hundreds of county residents will likely have a stake in the results. More than 500 county residents are on a waiting list for federally subsidized housing in Island County, said Steve Gulliford, executive director of the Island County Housing Authority. The number would stretch even higher, except the county housing authority stopped taking applications last year, he said.

“I would classify it as bad,” he said of the availability of affordable housing.

Prospective home buyers must also wrestle with the county’s rapid growth. Most homes in the county cost more than $200,000, a price tag which will only increase as people build more homes. Affordable housing supporters also point out that most new home owners do not work in the county. Many of those who do work locally, such as bank tellers and grocery store workers, often do not make enough wages to comfortably pay for a house, Gulliford said.

“A lot of people make hard choices, such as choosing between extensive health care coverage and food,” Torget said. “We know there are a lot of people on the edge.”

Langley’s Mayor Neil Colburn said the most likely spot for more affordable housing on South Whidbey is Langley because of the city’s zoning status as an area of rapid growth. Clinton and Freeland’s zoning laws do not allow apartments or dense housing construction.

“We’re the obvious place on the south end,” he said, although Freeland residents are working to change their zoning status and permit higher density construction.

Still, Colburn said he knows that last Thursday’s meeting only marked the beginning of a long and costly process. Simply to build affordable housing, the city of Langley may need to annex the land that would need to have close proximity to Island Transit lines. Someone would also have to pay to extend water and sewage services to the property.

In the meantime, people unable to afford new homes do receive help from a variety of local non-profit and volunteer organizations. Those include Goosefoot, Hearts & Hammers, Whidbey Island Share a Home, or WISH, and Habitat for Humanity. The organizations help by fixing homes, providing low-interest loans for homes and matching people seeking a place to live with homeowners who are looking to share a home with someone who will pay rent or provide services such as landscaping and light maintenance in lieu of rent.

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