"Teachers, cops priced off the island"
June 9, 2008 · Updated 3:12 PM
"They come to work a few years for valuable experience, then leave for someplace more affordable. That's the increasingly common story as public employees struggle with local housing costs.From teachers to police officers, many of the lower-paid but essential members of the community are being edged off Bainbridge Island as real estate prices rise beyond their salary levels - causing some to question how Bainbridge is affected.Bill Cooper, police chief, said he believes the role of officers on Bainbridge is compromised by the high cost of living. Our ability to become a part of this community is damaged by our inability to live here, Cooper said.Twenty of the department's 25 employees live off the island - including Cooper himself, who has been unable to sell his house and commutes from Olympia.A higher level of involvement in the community is what's at stake, he said: Living in the area where they work gives police officers and other public employees a better understanding of that area's needs.If our kids go to school together, if we're neighbors, he said. If our spouses know each other, then the operation of public works, the schools and the government itself becomes more important to each officer.New teachers, in particular, are having difficulty finding housing on the island.It's pretty evident, in general, that a young teacher starting out can have real difficulty in finding affordable housing, said Ric Jones, principal at Blakely Elementary School.Shannon Carey, a second-year social studies teacher at the high school, said she became desperate in her search for housing this summer. She wanted to buy a house here, but was shocked by costs.Even renting was difficult, she said. I advertised anywhere with a bulletin board, and the people who called were well-intentioned, but everything was way out of my price range.Carey calls the Bainbridge school district a Catch-22 - great place to work, but for people on her salary, a very difficult place to live.Realtor Ed Kushner, who has worked on the island since 1978, has seen housing costs climb steadily upward.For anybody coming in new, as a teacher, you're going to be in a difficult way finding housing, Kushner said. It's going to take two incomes just to enter into the marketplace.When he began his business, a $30,000 marked the high end for buying a house. Now, Kushner said, $385,000 is the average price for a house on Bainbridge Island. Spiraling costs largely reflect the perceived desirability of the island community - adjusted only for inflation based on the consumer-price index, a $30,000 home in 1975 would have cost just $98,500 in 1999.Moreover, 15 percent fewer houses were sold on the island in 1999 than in 1998, but prices, on average, were higher. This drags the prices of all housing upwards. Sometimes it's hard to articulate why this matters, Kushner said. It's easier to feel than to intellectualize - but it does matter.What many see slipping away is not only the day-to-day involvement of public employees in their communities, but economic diversity on the island. Kushner sees the problem in the heart of the community itself. The people of Bainbridge Island want immaculate conceptions, he said. They want gravel driveways without gravel pits, without gravel trucks.Judith Felder, a loan officer at the American Marine bank, outlined the problems of buying a house on an entry-level teacher's salary, which is roughly $2,000 a month.A $200,000 home, well below the island average, requires at least 20 percent down to avoid mortgage insurance, leaving a necessary loan of $160,000. On a 30-year fixed payment plan at 8.12 percent interest - the optimum rate for 2000 - the monthly payment is $1,188. Add taxes ($175) and insurance ($40) and the monthly rate is $1,400.This is just not the place to live if you don't make $50,000 a year, Felder said, and that's sad.Hard-scrabble living can also affect job performance, said high school Spanish teacher Jennifer Luthe.I think it breeds frustration and lack of contentedness with a job, she said. It's difficult to devote yourself to your work when you're struggling to pay bills.Though Luthe has had trouble locating a place to live, she managed to find a house she rents with three other teachers. All of them are doing the best they can to stay on Bainbridge Island.I'm not going to say 'Oh, I don't make enough money, so I'm going to leave,' Luthe said. But I'm just not sure if I'll be able to stay.Carey also wonders whether she can afford to live on the island long-term, and hopes the community will have the foresight to carve out affordable housing for public employees.While she enjoys teaching in the district, she said she will have to think seriously about her alternatives when she's ready to buy a house and raise a family.Unless we plan for the future, it's going to be a dangerous situation, Carey said. People will self-select out of these jobs because they can't afford to live here, and there will be more turnover and instability in jobs where you want stability, like teachers and firefighters. "