Housing organization eyes Freeland motel for affordable units

The transformation of a lodging establishment to affordable housing is becoming closer to a reality.

The transformation of a South Whidbey lodging establishment to affordable housing is becoming closer to a reality.

Last October, Island County commissioners authorized a $70,000 grant for the Low Income Housing Institute to help pay for pre-development costs associated with the potential purchase and conversion of the Harbor Inn in Freeland to low-income units.

Pre-development work, which has since been completed, involved legal review, a survey, an appraisal, a septic study and testing for asbestos and methamphetamine, according to the grant agreement.

The Low Income Housing Institute is now looking to purchase the motel, which has June 10 listed as its last day of operation on its website.

During a work session this week, county commissioners discussed a $1.5 million contract that would provide matching funds for the housing organization to purchase the existing property in question and turn it into supportive and bridge housing. A staff member pointed out that approving the funds would help leverage a total of $3.5 million from the state.

However, Commissioners Jill Johnson and Melanie Bacon were hesitant to make a decision without the third commissioner, Janet St. Clair, present at the meeting. They both expressed a desire for the public to be able to comment on the matter, which is slated to be on the regular meeting agenda for Tuesday, June 7.

“It is a large amount of money,” Johnson said. “I do think there’s value to the community hearing the conversation.”

Fourteen miles north, a proposed overnight homeless shelter near Coupeville has drawn heavy criticism from neighbors of the property in recent months.

In an interview, Sharon Lee, executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute, explained that half of the Freeland motel will become long-term affordable housing. The other half is designated to become a shelter for temporary stays and is intended to be a bridge between homelessness and a more permanent housing situation. There will also be an on-site manager and a case worker.

“The whole building is for people experiencing homelessness,” Lee said.

Human services staff members presenting to commissioners on the topic pointed out that the temporary housing – also referred to as bridge housing – could be a resource for people of modest means whose leases have been recently terminated, those who are coming out of treatment for addiction or people escaping domestic violence.

The housing is not meant as an emergency shelter or as housing for the chronically homeless, officials said.

Funds from the Housing Trust Fund, which is a program of the state Department of Commerce, will go towards refurbishment of the units.

Lee said there are 21 units total, which will be outfitted with kitchenettes. She is hopeful that people could be living in the units as soon as next month.

Rent has not yet been decided for the long-term housing. Local social services organizations, such as the Opportunity Council, will provide referrals for potential renters.

“We’re very happy because there’s resources that are really needed,” Lee said. “We know there’s a tremendous number of people that this property will help to exit homelessness.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the topic of the Low Income Housing Institute project will return to the commissioners’ agenda on May 31. It has since been updated with the correct information.