Rental crunch still a problem on Whidbey Island

As the value of homes on Whidbey continues to appreciate, the prospect of finding a place to rent grows more and more grim.

It’s so bad that property managers say some longtime renters have been forced out by homeowners who are eager to sell, and others are left searching for weeks or even months at a time.

“There are a bunch of really sad stories going on where quality renters are being pushed out by sellers,” said Jason Joiner, government affairs director for the Whidbey Island Association of Realtors. “Many renters are having to stay with grandparents.”

It’s been deemed by many as a countywide “housing crisis,” and the issue has caught the attention of Whidbey’s elected leaders. The council of governments invited realtors to speak about the “acute nature” of Whidbey’s housing crisis at a past meeting.

“It’s a high concern of mine and something that I’ve talked with both Langley Mayor Tim Callison and Coupeville Mayor Molly Hughes about,” Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said. “We are having work force issues since workers are having trouble finding places to live.”

The problem relates to the housing market’s recovery from the crash of 2007. Sales trickled for years, but recently picked up speed — fast. Particularly desirable are cheaper homes, which make up the vast majority of the rental market. People who were holding on to their homes are now selling, leaving a vacuum for rentals. Summed up, inventory can’t keep up with demand, and renters are scrambling to find places to live, Joiner said.

Countywide, 231 homes have been newly put up for sale by Aug. 2016 as opposed to 197 in Aug. 2015.

Further exacerbating the problem is an influx of Navy families at Naval Air Station Whidbey. The constraints on the market has forced them to look south in search of housing, and the result has been an average rate increase of 10 percent and only 10 to 15 percent of renters renewing their leases, according to numbers from Windermere Coupeville.

It’s not an isolated problem for Whidbey, but a regional one. Inventory shortages and high rental rates have plagued most of Western Washington, said Peter Orser, Director of the Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies at the University of Washington. He says all of western Washington has benefitted from the Seattle economic engine, and that has increased property values in neighboring areas and incoming workers have made vacancies scarce.

Joiner added this is a national problem, and most major markets on the West Coast are seeing a similar rental situation.

“I call it the ‘San Franciscization’ of Seattle,” Orser said. “I don’t see anything changing in the next couple of years.”

On South Whidbey, property manager at Windermere South Whidbey Ben Robinett said the island has a lack of rentals priced between $800 and $1,600 a month — the range that covers the average income on Whidbey. While he believes the situation is improving, the housing crunch has been a challenge for South Whidbey businesses.

The South End’s largest employer, Nichols Brothers, has struggled to house a record-level workforce. The ship builders used to think they were fully staffed at 300 employees, but Human Resources Director Kevin Corrigan says the company is at about 400 now and could conceivably reach up to 500 workers soon. It’s been a challenge for the employment agencies the yard utilizes to drum up new workers.

“The agencies have really given up on South Whidbey and they’re housing their people in Mukilteo and bringing them over on a ferry,” Corrigan said.

The problem is such that Nichols Brothers has had to get “creative,” said Corrigan, renting out its own homes to shelter workers. Though the company hasn’t been left shorthanded, it’s been an ongoing hurdle.

“I don’t want to paint too gloomy a picture, but we certainly feel the pain of the housing market,” he said.

Michaleen McGarry, executive director of the Langley Chamber of Commerce, said city businesses are also dealing with the headache but that their workers are less likely to commute.

“Our chamber members are saying they’re having a hard time finding qualified employees,” McGarry said. “People aren’t going to commute from the mainland; that’s a pricey proposition. It does affect things.”

Hoping to combat the rental crisis, Langley is changing some of the city’s zoning laws to accommodate multi-family housing, Price Johnson said. Joiner proposed a similar idea to increase density for housing on the island. He said law makers should look back to the Section 8 program established in the 1970s, which he said incentivized builders to construct higher density housing.

Robinett said the age range of renters impacted by the inventory shortage appears to span from people in their mid-20s to baby boomers.

Just when the rental market will stabilize regionally or even on Whidbey is unclear, and somewhat a matter of dispute, but Robinett said he’s seen signs that things are improving. Rentals were almost nonexistent earlier this year, but there’s a few creeping back onto the market, he said.

“I think there was a frenzy in the summer, and it’s my impression we’re through it,” Robinett said. “We have a few vacancies now.”