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It’s getting harder to get by here

Attorney Alan Trunkey and city worker Jennifer Sutton rent a cozy Wardwell Road cabin, but their dreams of home ownership are drawing them off-island. - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Attorney Alan Trunkey and city worker Jennifer Sutton rent a cozy Wardwell Road cabin, but their dreams of home ownership are drawing them off-island.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

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Dollars to Dwell

This is the first in a multi-part series on current affordable housing issues on Bainbridge Island.

Wednesday: A local cop and firefighter struggle for home ownership on the island where they were raised.

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There’s a post in Jennifer Sutton and Alan Trunkey’s cabin that still bears the marks of a family that long ago set their roots in Bainbridge Island.

“You can see someone’s height markings here, in 1935, and here in 1936,” said Sutton, tracing her finger along a collection of notches recording the growth of a youngster reaching for adulthood at a fast pace.

The cabin on Wardwell Road is, as it was 70 years ago, a humble but cozy place to start a family. But Sutton and Trunkey, who recently married, won’t be etching their future into this home, nor any home on Bainbridge Island.

“In blatant economic terms, it’s quite clear we don’t belong here,” said Trunkey, an attorney who commutes daily to Everett while Sutton bikes to Bainbridge City Hall, where she works as a planner. “We have to go off the island because we can’t afford to live here. There’s no wiggle room.

“There’s no way.”

The couple are planning to move off-island, where Sutton will join the growing ranks of imported labor that streams on to Bainbridge each morning.

With home values double what they were five years ago – and double the going rate in nearby communities – the island’s wage-earners and even it’s middle class are finding few footholds on an increasingly high-priced island.

It’s the land

“The folks that are being run off are the ones that teach our kids, police our roads and run our shops; it’s the public employees and the people at City Hall; it’s the folks you call the work force,” said Ed Kushner, a former real estate broker and co-founder of the Housing Resources Board, one of a handful of organizations trying to find solutions to the island’s affordability problems.

In the nearly 20 years since the HRB was formed, Kushner has seen some victories, but the few wins for housing diversity are eclipsed by a losing battle against market forces.

He’s witnessed the number of resident city workers and police officers dwindle below 50 percent. At the same time, the number of overall “guest workers” has swelled to 70 percent of the island’s workforce, according to a recent study.

“We’re becoming an island of nothing but commuters,” said island School District President Bruce Weiland, who has seen the number of teachers living on the island fluctuate between 30 and 50 percent. “Unfortunately, many of our teachers’ salaries aren’t much above $30,000. They need rentals but are not managing to find them. If they want to buy, they’re in deep trouble.”

The island’s likely to see that trouble deepen, said Kushner.

“The problem hasn’t been solved...I doubt it ever will,” he said. “We make progress, but the problem doesn’t go away.”

The problem is as plain as the ground housing advocate Kat Gjovik stands on.

“It’s land,” she said, slapping a table in the office of the Community Housing Coalition. “We have the expertise, the knowledge, the will, but land is number one. We’ve got to start with land.”

As director of the CHC, Gjovik is working to boost the pool of rentals, establish low-cost home purchasing programs and breathe life back into the city’s repealed affordable housing ordinance.

But all efforts are tied to price tags, which make it difficult to acquire or preserve affordable housing on land that could fetch a higher return on market rate homes or condos.

Land values have increased by 15 percent over the last year while rental fees, compounded by a 1 percent vacancy rate, have climbed 20-30 percent higher than Silverdale or Bremerton.

Supply, demand

Sutton and Trunkey pay about $1,000 per month for their 700-square foot cabin. On two salaries that total nearly $90,000 per year, the price isn’t out of reach.

Still, the couple – like most couples – wants to own their own home. Their buying budget – which tops out at about $300,000 – falls far short of the island’s median price of $660,000.

Many other working professionals, including teachers, police, seniors on fixed-incomes, bankers and some small business owners, are also priced out of the island’s market.

“With our little pot of money saved up, we want to be conservative,” said Sutton, who came to the island with a “boat load” of student loans. “We’re not looking for anything perfect – something small that needs some love and a little ‘sweat equity.’ But we’re not finding a single family home on the island.”

The couple is now looking in North Kitsap, recently putting in a bid for a $225,000 home in Suquamish.

Sutton, 32, and Trunkey, 38, are finding that their path to home ownership doesn’t match that of their parents and family.

“My mom had an older brother who bought a house in Iowa City when he was 25,” Trunkey said. “I grew up in a huge suburban house in Seatac that my mom bought when she was 29.”

“Ah, it’s a different world,” added Sutton.

Different, and likely to keep changing – especially on Bainbridge, where residents live near forests and farms while commuting via a short ferry ride to high-paying jobs.

“Not much can be done because the distance of Bainbridge from Seattle hasn’t changed and is not going to change,” said Kushner, who has seen the island’s population leap from about 9,000 in the early 1970s to over 22,000 today. “For all practical purposes, Bainbridge is a suburban enclave only seven miles from downtown Seattle. How many people who live seven miles from Seattle can have the lifestyle you can have on Bainbridge Island?”

Unlike most other cities, Bainbridge’s expansion is limited by its geography, he said, which drives values upward.

“It’s economics 101: supply and demand,” Kushner said. “Supply is limited but demand continues to grow.”

Solutions

While high-priced condos rise in downtown Winslow and luxury homes crowd the shores, some islanders are working to create a fresh supply of affordable housing.

Gjovik is leading a new initiative to encourage landowners to make more “accessory dwellings” – or mother-in-law apartments, as they are commonly called – available to renters.

“We want to show people the benefits, including the income stream it can provide,” she said. “It won’t be much, but maybe it will get people to say ‘golly, that might help me pay my property taxes.’”

The CHC also plans to draft city policy to make it easier and less expensive to build accessory dwellings under 800 square feet, which are allowed on most properties that fall under single-family home zoning.

Incentives under consideration include low-interest loans for rehabilitating dwellings, building permit waivers and amnesty for some structures that exceed the size limit.

Longtime island resident Merrill Robison, who built two accessory dwellings on his property 20 years ago, is teaming with CHC to promote the program.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity when you know what it can do for you and how it can help the community,” he said, adding that having renters nearby made his home more secure when he and his wife traveled. “I’ve had a bank teller live here and architects, a medical technician, and a guy who made signs. All were lovely young people who couldn’t afford to live here unless they had this opportunity.”

For those wishing to buy, the CHC helped establish a program that allows residents to purchase a home while the property on which it sits is held by a local community land trust. About a dozen other housing trusts are in operation around the state, including ones in Seattle, Bellingham and Orcas Island.

The Trust for Working Landscapes, which promotes farming on Bainbridge, is working on a similar initiative. While still in the early planning stages, TWL hopes to establish low-cost housing for farmers on city-owned agricultural land.

“I’d love to put all my effort into farming, but with the current market rates, I wouldn’t be able to pay for my house,” said Winslow resident John Chang, a father of two young children who works more than 40 hours a week for a software company on top of 20 hours he devotes to growing vegetables on a city-owned property.

Having access to lower-cost housing, Chang said, would ease some of the financial pressure he’s under and allow him to grow more produce for the Bainbridge farmers market.

“I wait until my kids go to sleep, then I work till I can’t see,” said Chang, who worked hours past sunset Thursday night after a full day working in Seattle.

“Why do I do it? I love to do it. There’s nothing more satisfying than growing food for people... and to do it closer in, where people live and not have it driven in from thousands of miles away. But it’s getting tougher because we have a new baby. Maybe, if affordable housing’s available, it’d be possible to continue this.”

Access denied

While many affordable housing options are on the rise, others are on the wane. Many longtime Eagle Harbor liveaboards, who pay no rent or fees while anchored out, are opting for dry land or calmer waters elsewhere.

Mike Martin, who has raised three children – two of whom were born onboard – in the harbor. When he dropped anchor 20 years ago, the inner-harbor was populated by families, artists and shipwrights.

Over time, Martin said, opposition to the free floating lifestyle drew the ire of shore dwellers who complained of unseemly behavior and unsightly vessels. Martin opposed recent state and city efforts to enact a fee and regulation system for liveaboards, but the fight’s left him. He now plans to sell his boat and move on.

“I’m worn out,” said Martin, who has worked on the island as a taxi driver, mover, artist and cook. “It’s hard being called ‘scum’ and hard to endure this need people have to push us out of existence. I had a dream of pursuing writing, art and to build a big vessel. I wanted to live a low-cost, low-impact lifestyle so I wouldn’t have to sacrifice my ideals and go out and focus on getting money.”

But money, said Trunkey, seems the sole measure of who gains access to the island.

“Unless we were to change the ground rules, the way to be eligible to join this community is through land ownership,” he said. “And the basis for evaluating eligibility is through money. If you don’t have the money, you don’t have access.”

Trunkey offered a new standard: “Rather than only looking at financial eligibility, what if we screened people on their real identity and how they (lived) as part of the natural landscape. What if we asked people ‘what are the names of the trees growing around you? What are the birds you hear? Where does the water you use come from? What could you grow here?’”

Local knowledge and connections to the surroundings, Trunkey said, are a more valuable form of community capital than the kind stored in banks.

“Money...you can use that anywhere, but how well a person gets along with other humans and the natural environment, that’s something we can use here.”

Trunkey knows such thoughts travel faster in the clouds than on the ground.

“It’s one of those topics where it feels like you’re railing against God,” he said. “It doesn’t do much good.”

Unreal town

Until higher powers bless the island with a bounty of affordable homes, Gjovik advocates more earthly strategies.

“We need a deeper and broader approach to implement projects,” she said. “There’s no one panacea. It’s not the housing ordinance or putting in 20 affordable housing units a year or building 100 right now. We have to have diverse housing options so we can have diverse backgrounds from the people who occupy them.”

Otherwise, Bainbridge could look a lot like Beverly Hills, said Kushner.

“I used to commute from Santa Monica through Beverly Hills,” he said of his early days in California. “There were two diametrically different flows of traffic: the one with people who had homes there but worked somewhere else, and the one that worked there but couldn’t afford to live there.

That’s not a real town. A real town has all kinds of people in it.”

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Going up

Bainbridge Island’s median home price took a 15 percent leap this year, further distancing it from prices in neighboring communities.

• Bainbridge Island: $660,000

• Bremerton: $220,000

• North Kitsap: $342,000

• Central Kitsap: $290,000

• South Kitsap: $270,000

Source: Kitsap County Assessor

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Affording little

As prices rise, many wage earners and professionals are edged out of the Bainbridge housing market, where the median income is about $75,000 and the median home price is nearly $700,000. Below are samples of occupations, their earnings and the type of housing they can afford.

• Wait staff, $15,400: subsidized rentals up to $400.

• Baker, $27,000: rentals up to $675.

• School bus driver, $34,000: rentals up to $850.

• Salesperson, $37,000: rentals up to $850.

• School teacher, $46,000: rentals up to $1,000, home purchases at $166,000.

• Ambulance driver, $47,000: rentals up to $1,100, home purchases at $168,000.

• City Planner, $45,000: rentals up to $1,100, home purchases at $161,000.

• Police officer, $49,000: rentals up to $1,200, home purchases at $174,000.

• Social Service Manager, $62,000: rentals up to $1,550, home purchases at $222,000.

Source: City of Bainbridge Island Housing Needs Assessment, 2003.

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