Affordable housing crisis: The causes, and the cure

North Kitsap Fishline provides key support services for homeless and low-income persons living in North Kitsap. Its executive director, Mary Nader, talked with the North Kitsap Herald about the human side of the affordable housing effort now taking place here in Poulsbo.

POULSBO — According to Mary Nader, executive director of North Kitsap Fishline, the major cause of homelessness in Poulsbo and North Kitsap is the lack of affordable housing.

“I talked to our housing folks to verify that is what we are still seeing,” Nader said, “and they absolutely see that … The major contributing factor [to homelessness] is the inability to find a place where they can afford to stay. There are other issues that are also contributing to homelessness … Mental illness is a big issue and, of course, substance abuse. But for most of our folks, the large majority, it’s almost beyond their control [because of the lack of housing]. It makes sense doesn’t it? When you don’t have the basics in life, you can’t think about improving yourself. It’s that old Maslow hierarchy of needs: if you don’t know where you’re going to sleep tonight it’s really hard to think about the potential of your life.”

Cause 1: Housing costs are outpacing wages

Nader said that while local government is working on short- and long-term solutions to the problem, affordable housing in the area is almost nonexistent.

“At any given time, the waiting list for an affordable unit here is about two years,” she said. “‘Affordable’ meaning that [the cost of housing] is less than 30 percent of one’s income. That’s how we define it. The number of subsidized units in our community is dwindling.”

She points out that more affordable housing units are being converted into units that charge the going market rate at a time when no new units are available to replace them.

“It’s like a game of musical chairs,” Nader said. “Every time you look around, they’ve taken a chair away and you’ve got to find a new place to sit.

“The heartbreaking folks — the ones your heart really goes out to — [are the] seniors that have come in in a terrible pickle,” Nader said. “Because they are on a fixed income, there are no options. These folks have learned to live on a certain amount every month and every time the rent goes up, then they have to give something else up. Now it’s getting close to the bone and these people are realizing they have to [find a less expensive place to live].

“I saw a senior couple yesterday. It was terrible, because he’s ill [and] the wife is taking care of him and she’s not well. She had a heart attack trying to lift him one day when he fell out of the bed. Then they lost their place because of all their expenses and the increased costs of their medical care. So, they moved in with their son in a teeny little house where he has bunch of kids. They can’t live like that. So now they’re trying to find a place to replace the place they lost and it’s going to take months, maybe years.

“Those are the scenarios we are hearing again and again. The market is pricing them out.”

Cause 2: Demand is exceeding supply

The waiting time for affordable housing can sometimes be shorter or longer than Nader suggested. According to an official at the Hostmark Village Cove Apartments, which rents to low-income seniors, the waiting list is 2 ½ years at the present time; rent there is about $709 a month, according to one rental website.

“Every once in a while, we hear that Bremerton is down to six months,” Nader said. “So, it cycles, but pretty much the status quo here is such that if you [live somewhere else and] haven’t found a place, coming here won’t necessarily connect you to a place. We can help them see the kinds of options are available, but we are all struggling with this together.”

“There are like 600 affordable housing units here locally,” Nader said. “And nearly all of them will be up for consideration for the going market rate in the next couple of years. You can’t blame the people who own these complexes … if it’s an opportunity for them to do better, I can understand that. But the unfortunate part is the toll that it is taking.

Cause 3: Development stalled during recession

So what brought on the current affordable housing crisis in Poulsbo? Nader said one cause is the skyrocketing cost of housing across the water.

“If you were to step back and look at the big picture, you would see that as prices rise in a place, people will leave that community and move to the next one over to see if they can afford to live there,” Nader said. “So I think many people have come here from Seattle. They can no longer live there, they can no longer afford it, and they step onto the ferry and go to Bainbridge Island and realize that’s going to be difficult, so they keep going until they reach a place that is somewhat stable.”

A second reason, Nader said, is that the people who live here now love it here and don’t want to move if they can help it.

“You know, people love this community,” Nader said. “I asked our affordable housing people yesterday, ‘Why do people stay?’ And our housing advocate said she has asked the same question and people say because they love it here, because they know people here, because they have a family member here and want to be close to them.”

Did local government see this coming?

“I think Mayor Becky [Erickson] pretty well nailed it when she said that when 2009 came, all development went to nothing here,” Nader said. “There were no new homes, no new apartments being built. There was a real stall. But, at the same time, it was a perfect storm because that’s also when we noticed the tipping point in our community where it was growing quickly.

“So, you have this crossroads where in a normal economy there would be units continuing to be built all the time. But, we had a cease and desist for a little while, and so then whatever was available became much more precious and fought over.

“It is just a kind of supply-and-demand kind of thing. So now, developers have realized the potential, and to see how many units are being built in Bremerton alone is kind of amazing — and the same thing is happening here. Now, how many of those units are obligated by law to be affordable is another question.”

Cure: Innovation and opportunity

Nader had high praise for Housing Kitsap, the non-profit that hopes to build two affordable apartment complexes in Poulsbo — one on Viking Avenue and the other near the Olympic College campus — as well its sweat equity housing effort in the Summerset development.

“They have just been amazing,” she said. “[But] we are two years out [from completion]. That’s the reality.”

She added, “Affordability, even on the low-end, is out of the reach of most of our low-income clients right now … You’re talking $1,200 a month for rent. It’s impossible.”

Even when the two new Housing Kitsap units are completed, there probably still will not be enough affordable housing, Nader said.

“I get the impression that people who are smarter than I am think that when more high-end units are available, then more low-end units will be available; that people, when given other options, will choose to upgrade and then places that would be more affordable will be available.”

She is particularly excited at the prospect of someday having a new Housing Kitsap affordable apartment complex next to Fishline on Viking Avenue.

“The fact that we are a service provider with plans for a housing development right next door, that wasn’t an accident,” she said. “The plan was very consciously created to provide accessible service provision to folks who need it. There is even a sense of community that comes with that. We see that at Fishline every day. People come in and they feel like people notice, people know who they are, people care about what is happening to them, and they aren’t as scared because they know they can go to somebody and say ‘I need help ’and they know that somebody will try to help them.

“So, to have a place where people live nearby, or they can participate, not just in receiving services, but also in providing them — we kind of see this as a big, beautiful circle where people may need help but they very often, at the same time, have things they can help with. We watch this give-and-take exchange with awe, because it’s amazing to see how it works.”

That’s the long-term vision. In the meantime, Nader said a number of innovative programs are being developed or grown to address immediate affordable housing needs.

“We’ re trying to do the best we can with what we have,” Nader said. “We’re doing some interesting things. I think our Home Share program is worthy of consideration and some investment of effort.”

The Home Share program does background checks and matches people who need an affordable rental with homeowners who need help making ends meet and have room to rent. Fishline has a small Home Share program now and Nader expects it to grow. The city of Poulsbo is also reviewing regulations regarding boarding houses and accessory dwelling units, or “ADUs.”