County Council Approves $3.5 Million Commitment to Affordable Housing

by Toby Cooper

Marking the latest milestone for the four-year-old Home Fund – San Juan County’s voter-approved, real estate excise tax-funded, affordable housing treasure chest – the County Council met October 11 to unanimously approve a $3.5 million new-money commitment for the coming fiscal year.

The money becomes the Home Fund’s share of three priority projects – OPAL’s Kidder Lane project on Orcas, Lopez Village North, and Fisherman Bay Curve on Lopez – which together will total $20 million in construction costs. The balance of the funding will come from loans, state Housing Trust Fund grants, and a bevy of generous private donors.

“The Home Fund is healthy,” said Ryan Page, the county’s Housing Program Manager who administers the fund from his office at the Orcas Senior Center. “Revenues have exceeded the expectations established by the 2018 ballot measure. Every dollar that has come in has been committed and continues to move straight out the door.”

San Juan County is but a microcosm of a housing crisis which by most measures spans the globe. “It’s time we levelled with young people: Housing affordability as we knew it is gone forever,” intoned the headline in a Canadian publication last week. But by tagging a 0.5 percent excise tax on county real estate sales transactions – mirroring the existing 1 percent tax structure that funds the San Juan County Land Bank – San Juan County became uniquely qualified to compete for grants from the Washington State Housing Trust Fund.

“An affordable housing fund was an idea whose time had come,” said Anne Marie Shanks, one of the proponents of the 2018 ballot measure which gained a 55 percent “Yes” vote. The Home Fund was originally projected to generate $15.2 million over a 12-year period to support “acquisition, building, rehabilitation, and maintenance of housing for very low, low, and moderate-income persons and those with special needs.”

Ryan Page reports cumulative Home Fund revenues to date are above $10 million, pacing ahead of projections. Annual awards from the fund since 2019 have averaged $2.7 million per year. The pace of revenues has slowed in 2022, not unexpected by Page in this time of rising interest rates.

Reflecting on the success of the fund, the OPAL Community Land Trust’s veteran Executive Director Lisa Byers agreed with Page that the fund was fortuitously launched at the onset of a region-wide real estate boom that spilled onto our islands with a “vengeance.” But, since Home Fund revenues are a direct function of residential transactions, Lisa sees that “the problem is helping to fund the solution.”

But the question remains: Is San Juan County making inroads into the need for affordable housing? Byers and Page are optimistic, and Sandy Bishop, chair of the Housing Advisory Commission, agrees. In the first 3 years of operations (2019 – 2022), the Home Fund helped five non-profits complete 109 units of affordable housing countywide. “Now, in 2022,” Sandy adds, “the fund will support another 71 units.”

Not to be understated is the level of credibility the Home Fund creates for San Juan County in the eyes of decision-makers at the Housing Trust Fund. “State housing grants total $275 million annually,” said Ryan Page after the October 11 County Council vote. “Our relatively modest funding horizon could get buried in the spreadsheets. But because we have this reliable, predictable, politically popular funding source, plus private donors, the state knows we will hold up our end of the bargain.”