Task force discusses steps toward affordable housing on Whidbey Island

Streamlining permit reviews and reducing permit fees for qualified housing projects are some steps being considered to bring more affordable housing to Whidbey Island.

Possible solutions explored by a 30-member Affordable Housing Task Force were discussed last week at a Council of Governments special session.

Oak Harbor City Council member Rick Almberg explained how delays in reviewing permits needed for proposed construction by local governments often drives up costs. Additionally, meeting some state and federal requirements that are not pertinent to local conditions, yet must still be followed, add to expenses, he said.

One such “onerous” regulation, Almberg pointed out, is the state’s stormwater requirements for western Washington regardless of local rain fall patterns. The regulations are designed, in part, for flood control and environmental protection.

Parts of Whidbey Island and the Olympic Peninsula are in a rain shadow and experience nearly one-half of the rainfall of other regions, Almberg said. Yet under the regulation, new construction in Oak Harbor — and eventually all of Island County — will have to comply with the Western Washington hydrology model that’s part of Puget Sound’s Low Impact Development program.

“The net effect of this policy will likely result in a $30,000 increased cost to each single family residence,” Almberg said. Negotiating more cost-effective alternatives that are still environmentally sound might be a possibility, he added.

The Affordable Housing Task Force is comprised of people familiar with construction, finance, land mapping and real estate. It was formed in September by County Commissioner Jill Johnson and Oak Harbor Mayor Bob Severns in response to rent increases and fewer housing options for low-income and middle-income families.

Affordable housing is defined as rent and utilities (or mortgage and utilities) that does not exceed 30 percent of gross income. But more and more families and individuals are becoming “burdened” because they cannot meet that standard.

A 2015 study showed that one-third of households in Island County are struggling to pay for housing.

Of the 33,000 households surveyed, more than one-third of the rental household were rent-burdened and 8,000 homeowners were considered cost burdened.

A list of possible solutions is expected to be released by the task force in the next several months, Oak Harbor Mayor Bob Severns said.