Island County, Oak Harbor team up to tackle low-income housing

Two elected officials want to put the “task” back in task force.

Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson and Oak Harbor Mayor Bob Severns decided that the dire need for affordable housing on North Whidbey is well documented and people have had plenty of discussions about the topic.

It’s time to figure out practical solutions and to act, they said.

To accomplish that, they are creating the Housing and Housing Affordability Task Force. The group will be tasked with coming up with specific recommendations for the elected officials in a six-month time frame.

Johnson and Severns hope to fill the task force with volunteers in the community who have real-world knowledge of the issues involved in affordable housing, such as land-use planning, construction, finance, land mapping and real estate. They are asking for people with such expertise to submit letters of interest to Lynda Richards of Island County Human Services at by Sept. 30.

Johnson said the key to the effort is that county government and the county’s largest city are working together. Both elected officials are contributing staff time to the endeavor.

“The success of the effort rises and falls with our ability to work together and get the right people to the table,” Johnson said.

Possible ideas that the task force may investigate are tax or fee rebates, zoning changes and the streamlining of permitting. But the elected officials want to hear from people with real-world experience about what actually works.

“Government is famous for coming up with solutions for problems that don’t exist,” Johnson said.

The housing crunch is closely related to the increasing personnel at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. Using 2016 as a baseline, the number of personnel associated with NAS Whidbey Island is projected to increase by 1,320 people, or 7 percent, to 19,560, by 2018 and by 3,740 people, or 20 percent, to 21,980, by 2019.

The Navy isn’t building new housing because there’s considered to be surplus housing in the commute radius of 100 miles, according to Navy officials.

Even with a dearth of housing, elected officials on North Whidbey want the Navy personnel and their families to live on North Whidbey. It’s good for the economy, it’s good for schools and it’s good for individuals to be a part of a community they work in, Johnson and Severns said.

“Seventy-five percent of Navy families want to be on North Whidbey,” Severns said.

A 2015 study shows that one-third of households in Island County are struggling to pay for housing, according to the county. An individual is considered to be burdened when more than 30 percent of household income goes to pay the rent or mortgage.

Much of the rental market was built and priced to accommodate Navy personnel, Johnson said. As a result, it can be even more difficult for working families that earn less to find affordable housing — if they can find housing at all.

Richards said the situation is desperate for many families. Sometimes an event beyond their control, such as a rental home being sold out from under them, can lead to homelessness.

It’s this population — the working poor and middle class — that the task force’s work will likely be focused on helping. Johnson argued that it’s not just these families who will gain from the effort, but the business community and the community at large.

“Having affordable workforce housing is key to economic development,” she said. “It’s part of making the economy grow. We want those families and workers here. We want people to live and work in their communities as much as possible.”