Priced out of house and home

Island property is out of reach of low-to-middle incomes, says task force.

A salary of $56,088 a year seems decent – until you want to buy a house on Bainbridge Island.

On Bainbridge, that salary is 80 percent of the community’s median income – $70,110 – and right on the line between low and moderate income as defined by federal housing standards.

That means a firefighter or teacher can afford to buy a house if it’s in the $129,000 to $202,000 range; “middle income” small business owners and loan officers making $67,305 to $84,132 could afford a house costing $242,000 to $303,000.

And in the past three years, only 21 percent of homes sold on the island fetched less than $300,000. The reality is 40 percent of the population is finding it harder and harder to live on Bainbridge.

The working class is less and less able to afford housing on Bainbridge Island – that was the message Wednesday evening, in a well-attended presentation by the Mayor’s 2003 Affordable Housing Task Force to City Council.

“Despite mighty efforts of code and nonprofits, it is not enough to stop the trend” away from affordability and economic diversity, task force member Bruce Weiland said. “If we stay the current course, we are sliding backwards.”

Recommendations by the task force included a mix of subsidies and zero-dollar changes to the city’s current affordable housing programs.

Subsidies could include community land trusts on which to develop cheaper housing – taking high land costs out of the construction equation – and “silent seconds” programs that lend a second 10 percent towards a down payment on homes.

“It became apparent in conversations that likely there is never enough money for all need, so we should seek to meet some need at all levels,” task force member Donna McKinney said.

Some zero-dollar policy strategies could come with a political price. Task force members noted that increasing density in some areas would help create affordable housing; however, Weiland noted, density is the “political third rail” on Bainbridge and could be difficult to tackle.

At the same time, increased density has to be balanced with the environmental impact, said Charlie Wenzlau, task force chair.

Given the complexity of the housing problem as well as the panoply of organizations and programs already in place, coordination by a dedicated commission or specialist was a top request.

Task force members urged the city to treat affordable housing as an ongoing need and priority, not just an issue to be revisited periodically.

“We can’t implement complex strategies by revising every five years,” Weiland said. “We need continual tinkering and examining. It needs a commission to take this on as a mission because of the problem’s complexity.”

The task force will return to the council within 60 days with a list of short-term fixes to promote affordable housing.

“We need the political will to keep the (housing) gap close. We need to take action on a consistent basis,” task force member Kevin Hawkins said. “Let’s make sure we don’t give up on the solution. There are a lot of ways to impact this on a short-term basis.”

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