Affordable housing tough in these times

Housing experts say the affordable-housing market on Bainbridge Island is so depressed that people, most of whom are looking for one- or two-bedroom spaces, have written it off and stopped looking on the island. This is especially true for families because they often need three bedrooms, which means they’re searching for rare and very expensive rental houses.

Through the Housing Resources Board and the Kitsap County Consolidated Housing Authority, there are about 190 affordable-housing rental units now occupied on Bainbridge Island. Another 50 or so would have been added to the inventory if the city’s proposed Quay Apartments project were successful, but that deal is all but dead for a variety of reasons. Both nonprofit agencies now have lengthy waiting lists – with more than 100 in HRB’s file – and little hope of an immediate turn-around. They’re hoping community members will step forward to help solve the dilemma.

What’s most discouraging is that the city’s thrust to preserve what’s available and obtain new stock to fill the growing need has dissipated because of the financial quandary city leaders are now facing. Tightening of city purse strings has led to the disbanding of the city-sponsored Community Housing Coalition, turning those duties over to a city planner. The city seemed willing to add affordable-housing stock via the Quay deal, but with a planner who spends only one-quarter of his time on affordable housing it’s clear that the city has more pressing puzzles to solve these days. A benchmarking study recommended the city pay for a full-time affordable-housing planner, but that’s not going to happen anytime soon.

Efforts in social engineering, i.e., attempts to manage the makeup of a community in resistance to the existing supply and demand of the marketplace, are extremely difficult because they pull resources and energy away from maintaining what’s already here, such as the island’s infrastructure or assurances that the water supply is secure. And each time there is a failure, such as the Quay, the economic wall becomes a little more impenetrable and expensive the next time around. Some say it’s too late; other refuse to give up.

One can argue that there’s a need for more economic diversity on this island, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. It certainly isn’t headed in that direction. One estimate is that there are about 645 complex-type apartments on the island, and maybe that many rental apartments in private homes. The trend is clearly headed in the opposite direction: an estimated 80 to 85 percent of island residents own their own homes. One affordable-housing advocate said that perhaps the condo market will turn so sour that developers who can’t sell them or find renters at the market price will decide to rent them at affordable prices. Don’t hold your breath for that to happen.

Money makes this island go around, and unless the city or some philanthropic individuals can afford to successfully subsidize large amounts of affordable housing, well, it’s off across the bridge for many of the people who help make this island city so unique. There is still a healthy mix of people on the island, but it is attracting more and more people who can afford to pay for the isolation that the island offers. As they arrive, others are driven away by the cost of living here. During the last six months, the island has experienced a prolonged slump in real estate sales, but median price for an island home during the first four months of 2008 was still $839,500.

The city, however, plods on. Its Housing Trust Fund planner is scheduled this week to meet with developers to determine whether or not development of affordable housing, in conjunction with market-rate housing, is feasible. In other words, can they forge an agreement, an ordinance, that allows affordable housing to be built in lieu of the same developers being allowed to erect housing complexes more densely than normally allowed.

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