The affordable housing crisis is central to the campaigns of the two candidates for Island County commissioner.
Former Island County planner Nathan Howard and private business owner Gary Wray announced their bids for District One commissioner, a position that covers Central and South Whidbey. That seat will be vacated by Helen Price Johnson, who is running for a state senate seat.
The seat is up for grabs in the November 2020 election.
Wray, a Republican, challenged Price Johnson in her 2016 bid for re-election. The chairman of Habitat for Humanity for Island County’s board of directors said he focused on housing in his first run as well and doesn’t think the issue was properly addressed.
“People talked about it, but things aren’t being done,” Wray said.
Howard, who works as a transportation planner for Snohomish County, said he thinks there are some “aggressive zoning changes” and pilot projects that could be implemented to address the issue.
Wray advocates for increased density in the urban areas and streamlined permitting to facilitate more development. The Coupeville resident has dedicated his life to housing. He builds them, he’s a longtime board member for Habitat and chairman of the Washington Affordable Housing Committee for the Building Industry Association of Washington.
“Having a home is very important,” he said. “That’s kind of the American dream, and it’s slipping away for so many people.”
Howard, also a Coupeville resident, said he sees the need for housing firsthand. He, his wife and their four children were struggling to get by because of the high cost of living on Whidbey.
This was especially a problem for him when he worked for Island County, he said.
Howard also served as union president while working for the county and said he’s familiar with personnel problems associated with high turnover. He said the pay is too low and management doesn’t have enough leadership training, which has led to several planners leaving the department.
“The staff is not working as effectively as we could,” he said. “It distracts from being able to handle bigger issues like climate change.”
Wray also noted the turnover in the county planning department and advocates for higher pay. However, he said, one of his focuses will be on the “health and safety” of the budget.
Wray also said he wants to work on making it clearer to the public where the funding goes, which is another goal he and Howard share.
Wray said his experiences as a business owner and in leadership positions on the various boards he serves on have given him the tools and policy knowledge necessary to be a county commissioner. He’s also willing to sit down and listen to people on all sides of issues, he said.
Howard said his work on policy making as a planner has given him an ability to think “outside the box” for solutions. He also said he’s no stranger to public opposition to his work and isn’t deterred by conflict.