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Moving up by moving away

A new study reveals the exodus of middle- and low-income families.

Bainbridge is losing its wage earners. Not at work, but at home.

A report by the Mayor’s Affordable Housing Task Force, to be presented at City Hall this evening at 6 p.m., says island households making $35,000 or less annually declined 40.5 percent from 1994 to 2003. Of residents in the 18-34 age group, “there has been a significant decline,” the report says.

And it is a lack of affordable housing that’s driving moderate- and low-income families off the island – as illustrated by Madeline Johnson and her two children who wanted to stay, but could not.

“At one point it was a hard decision, and at one point it was an easy decision,” said Johnson, leaving Bainbridge to take advantage of a self-help housing program in Poulsbo. “I’m at least grateful not to be moving five states away.”

Johnson works at an island daycare and has lived in a two-bedroom apartment with her son and daughter for 11 years. She has been waiting for an affordable three-bedroom place for nearly a decade.

She applied for federal Housing and Urban Development Section 8 assistance – vouchers towards rent in participating housing – and to the Kitsap County Consolidated Housing Authority’s Self-Help Housing program, which allows qualified buyers to put in 30 hours a week of “sweat equity” building the house in lieu of a down payment.

Johnson was on the KCCHA list for two years, and the HUD list for nine. The long wait was because she asked to stay on Bainbridge Island.

In March 2002, she finally got to the top of the HUD list and started searching for a three-bedroom apartment for less than $1,300 a month, the HUD maximum. Not finding many three-bedroom apartments to start with – a dearth reflected in the task force report – Johnson found only units in the $1,400-$2,200 range.

Luckily, the KCCHA called then to see if she would consider a self-help housing development in Poulsbo, as the wait for Bainbridge was six to 10 years.

Johnson jumped at the chance, although torn at moving away from a her home of 11 years.

High land costs have made affordable housing on Bainbridge and elsewhere in Kitsap difficult, says Alan Trunnell, single family housing director at the KCCHA. Low-density zoning reduces lot supply.

“Zoning is a good thing, but the (resulting) increase in lot cost is a reduction in the number of lots that can be developed (for affordable housing),” Trunnell said.

The Poulsbo lots that will be home for Johnson and 28 other families cost the KCCHA $62,000 per lot, averaging 5,000 square feet.

The Weaver Creek project, another self-help project the KCCHA sponsored on Bainbridge in October 2000 had lots which required $50,000 each in subsidies; even so, the homes cost $165,000 and up.

Low interest rates fueling home demand has also hurt supply. But interest rates will go up again, so city planners have to keep that in mind, Trunnell says.

“We don’t want urban sprawl and don’t want to take low-income families and move them away from services and stores,” he said.

“It just then adds to their cost and doesn’t support a long-term effort.”

With a low inventory of affordable lots in Kitsap County, Trunnell said KCCHA may not do more self-help projects in Kitsap County after the Poulsbo site.

Habitat for Humanity of Kitsap completed three homes on Bainbridge last autumn. Islander Sally Hewett, one of the project organizers, said lots were donated or sold for “very reasonable” prices.

“The local group would love to get more property to build on Bainbridge – we have a good volunteer pool,” she said. “We had over 200 volunteers and 20-30 businesses that contributed.”

Habitat has new projects in Kingston and Hansville, Hewett said, but none on the island at this time.

Since last October, Johnson and her son Mitchell have been putting in 30 hours of “sweat equity” every weekend for their house. The group hopes to finish in July, and are looking for volunteer help.

Trunnell suggests that one option is community “land trusts,” where the city or other government agency owns the land that’s developed, so qualified buyers purchase the house without the land cost.

Bainbridge is already developing such an idea with the Trust for Working Landscapes, which hopes to merge affordable housing and farming.

Similarly, the Bainbridge Island Parks District and Housing Resource Board are working to develop new caretaker residences at some local parks.

One affordable home each could go at Manzanita and John Nelson parks; in exchange, the presence of caretakers would increase park safety.

But the opportunities created would be incremental, compared to the greater challenges identified in the mayor’s task force report.

“There’s not a lot of choices for affordable housing on Bainbridge Island,” Johnson said. “It’s a far reach when you’re hoping for something more for your children.”

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Building hope

Volunteers are sought for construction of self-help housing in Poulsbo, every Saturday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. No experience needed. Ages 16 and up. For information and directions, call Madeline Johnson 780-1040.

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