Searching for a place to live

For Tiffany Butler of Port Orchard, 2016 has been “annus horribilis.”

In January, Butler and her husband Trey were forced to leave their basement residence of a home they were living in after their landlord refused to repair rainstorm damage from a flood in December.

As a temporary fix, the couple moved into Tiffany’s parents’ place with the intention of moving out a few months later after finding a permanent place to live.

But 10 months later, the Butlers are stranded and stuck, still residing in their temporary shared quarters. Just like a growing number of Kitsap County residents, they haven’t been able to find a new place to live.

A historically sparse rental housing market here and in other Puget Sound counties has driven them and others who are middle to low-income-level earners seeking shelter into a state of desperation and depression: There’s literally “no room in the inn” to house people in the marketplace.

While there are plenty of factors at play that have contributed to this perfectly awful housing marketplace storm, real-estate housing experts, builders of single-family and multifamily complexes and government leaders say this housing marketplace environment is unprecedented — and complex.

“It’s an interesting time in terms of historic economic behavior,” said Teresa Osinski, executive vice president of the Kitsap Building Association. “We’re seeing an increasing and sustained high rental market with low availability. But this time, we’re not seeing that translate into renters deciding it’s the right time for them to buy instead.”

Chalk that up to more stringent lending requirements from the home mortgage lending industry following the national banking near-collapse in 2008. Over a heartbreaking stretch of months, hundreds of thousands of homeowners who lost their jobs were stuck with houses worth a fraction of their mortgage. Even those with jobs were stuck in their indebted homes and unable to move up — or out of — the home ownership market.

The subsequent Great Recession brought the homebuilding industry to a screeching halt. As a result, the real-estate landscape in Kitsap County and elsewhere in the country, for that matter, has diametrically opposed forces at play: a growing population here, lured to Kitsap County by jobs and a relatively affordable housing market, chasing precious few homes for sale.

The most recent report from Windermere Real Estate chief economist Matthew Gardner indicates that Kitsap County has recorded the second-highest jump in home sales prices in the Puget Sound region. Prices from third quarter 2015 to the same time this year rose 13.9 percent.

It’s not uncommon now for a property for sale to have multiple buyers lined up to purchase it. Once again, supply and demand has forced onto potential purchasers an inconvenient dilemma: the limited number of houses for sale are rapidly appreciating in price due to overheated demand. And that has created a logjam to the traditional linkage between renters seeking to take a step upward and become homeowners.

Not only that, but the hot demand for multifamily units here is driving rents sky-high.

Renter Jessica Jablonski posted on Facebook that even if an available apartment can be found, its rent has jumped at least a few hundred dollars over what was charged just a year ago.

“The apartments that are available are ridiculously expensive,” Jablonski said.

“(The least expensive) one-bedrooms are running about $900 and are only about 450-500 square feet. I live in South Park Greens and the rent keeps going up, to the point I might have to move back in with my family.”

Landlords of available rental apartments and homes also have tightened lease requirements. Some security deposits that may have been $400 have now jumped up to $1,000, with a portion of that amount nonrefundable.

“I’ve lived in the same house for four years,” Melany Plummer wrote on Facebook, “and my rent has gone up four times for no rhyme or reason.”

A single mom, Plummer said she makes repairs herself because she’s afraid to bother the landlord, for fear he will force her to leave once the lease is up.

“I can barely afford to live here now, so saving (for a down payment) is a joke. If I have to move, I will be forced into homelessness because I don’t have a family here and I can’t afford what’s considered ‘reasonable’ housing.

“What they have done to this wonderful community is ridiculous.”

But just exactly who “they” are is hard to define. Some point fingers at government land-development codes and regulations that they say are driving out affordable new housing development from lower-income areas in Kitsap County and, by necessity, moving the same home into a higher price category — in a more desirable area.

They say the costs associated with regulations are pricing them out of the market niche that most desires housing.

The state’s Growth Management Act has played a role in unsettling the old marketplace’s playing field.

The GMA, and modifications made when Kitsap County approved its development codes and regulations, have driven the cost of new home ownership upward, sometimes considerably so. By some estimates, 2009 stormwater code amendments have increased the cost of land development by 40 percent.

“This doesn’t just affect somebody trying to develop a plat, this affects single-family residential structures” being built in what’s called “in-fill” locations — empty, irregular-shaped lots, some in less desirable areas, Osinski said.

In Bremerton last year, she said, the city doubled its general facilities charges for development. Those fees are charged when a new home is built within the city in order to provide water, sewer and stormwater service.

“The cost of development for a typical house rose from $9,000 to $18,000. That’s a lot of money when you’re talking about housing stock being built within a relatively low-income urban area that is a less desirable place to live,” Osinski said.

“That $18,000 would be less impactful in Poulsbo than it is in Bremerton. In real estate, it’s ‘location, location, location.’ If you make policy decisions that price your product out of the market, builders won’t build there because the risks are too high.

“Buyers then will decide, ‘Well, I’m not going to buy a house in East Bremerton, I’ll buy in Manchester or McCormick Woods.”

The myriad reasons for the housing crisis could fill an economics book. But for the people affected by the issue — many of them hovering at the lower levels of household income — the impact isn’t merely an academic conundrum, said Stuart Grogan, executive director of Housing Kitsap.

He heads the quasi-public organization, which operates under the auspices of county housing authorities and the Board of Commissioners.

“One of the things the county as a whole needs to think about is how we respond to this crisis because the resources are so constrained everywhere,” Grogan said.

Housing Kitsap is responsible for a mixed portfolio of 902 housing units in the county, from Bainbridge and Kingston to Olalla.

Grogan said the vacancy level for Housing Kitsap’s portfolio is at about 2-3 percent, which he said was “stunning.” Not surprisingly, the demand for housing across the county is highest for “affordable housing.”

“As fast as we can get them available, there’s someone who’s ready to move in,” he said.

Housing provided by the organization offers below-market rent — sometimes up to $500 a month under the going rate. That growing discount is a result of the rapidly rising rental market that is seeing rents increase with each signed lease agreement.

“For families paying 30 percent of their income for our housing, that’s OK,” Grogan said. “But when you’re paying $300-$400 more, you’re starting to have to make compromises with your other expenses, which include essentials like healthcare, transportation and childcare.”

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