EDITORIAL | Whidbey leaders have big job ahead in addressing affordable housing

The affordable housing problem on Whidbey Island, particularly the north end of the island, is reaching a crisis point, if it’s not there already.

More than ever, hard-working families are living paycheck to paycheck because a large portion of their income is going to pay for housing. Some families simply can’t find a place and are being forced to live off the island or, in the worse case, end up homeless.

Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson and Oak Harbor Mayor Bob Severns are putting their political capital behind a unique effort to find solutions. They are turning to the public for help, specifically people who have real-world experience in such areas as construction, property management and land-use planning.

They rolled out their plans this week for the unfortunately named Housing and Housing Affordability Task Force, which will be a joint project between the county and city.

Johnson and Severns promise it won’t be just another discussion group, but one that will come up with specific recommendations for ways government and the private sector can ease the problem.

For the task force to work, experienced, solution-oriented people in the community need to step up and sign up. Those interested should email a letter of interest to l.richards@co.island.wa.us.

But a serious effort to address the problem has been a long time coming. Eight years ago Oak Harbor Mayor Jim Slowik started a conversation about affordable housing after a series of mobile home parks — a valuable source of affordable housing — closed down to make way for other development.

One intriguing idea at the time was for the city to sell or donate unused property specifically for the development of affordable housing.

The problem has only got worse since then. The rebounding economy and a big — and continuing — increase in personnel at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island has exacerbated the problem.

Some of the proposals will likely be controversial as the task force and ultimately elected officials try to balance the need for affordable housing with environmental protection, private property rights and the inevitable disgruntled neighbors who are concerned about living next to affordable housing.

But if solutions were simple, the problem probably would have been addressed already. Ultimately, it will take courage on the part of leaders to embrace the changes that may need to be made.