By Mandi Johnson
Six months ago — when the vacation rental permit moratorium began — we wrote an editorial explaining our stance on the issue. With the county council making a determination to end or extend the moratorium next month, we’d like to reiterate our feelings on the topic.
Vacation rentals have their place in our community. VR owners range from a handful of people who have second homes here and rarely visit, to those who live here year-round and constantly contribute to the community.
There are definitely some enforcement issues in terms of cracking down on illegal rentals — but a moratorium and additional rules against those who have legally permitted vacation rentals aren’t going to solve that problem. Vacation rental owners are not villains.
Legal vacation rental owners are required to jump through several hoops to receive the permit, then they must continue to work to stay within the required parameters. Anecdotes about party houses and poor renters need to be supported by data before they should be taken seriously enough to accuse all legal rental owners of malfeasance.
In 2018, the county council updated its regulations on vacation rentals, requiring existing permit holders to annually certify compliance. In February of this year, San Juan County Community Development Director Erika Shook told the county council that San Juan County has issued permits for 1,002 vacation rentals — 430 are active; 202 inactive; and the remaining are non-compliant.
The exact number of unpermitted rentals is unknown, however, more than 40 unpermitted vacation rentals and levied more than $100,000 in fines. The fine for operating a vacation rental without a permit is $2,300. The county relies heavily on the public to report such violations. If you are aware of someone operating a rental without a permit, contact the planning department at 360-378-2354.
Another concern often conflated with vacation rentals is the lack of affordable housing. While vacation rentals may contribute to the problem, they’re not the whole story.
Also in 2018, county voters approved a 0.5 percent Real Estate Excise Tax to support the development of affordable housing in the county. The tax is assessed on the purchase and sale of real property within the county, with the buyer paying 99 percent of the tax and the seller paying 1 percent. The REET is the highest it’s ever been thanks to a real estate market that is currently booming. In just a couple of years, the REET has helped to fund affordable housing projects on Orcas, Lopez and San Juan.
These affordable homes for people on tight incomes are fantastic, but it’s also leaving out a good portion of the population who make too much money to be considered low income and qualify for said housing, but too little to afford to purchase a house. This pushes out much of the working class causing an issue that we’re seeing now — a lack of employees to fill support positions.
Based on our observations, we aren’t convinced that vacation rentals are causing our affordable housing crisis, nor that abolishing or restricting them will actually help solve the issue at hand. We urge the council to look at other, critical factors.
According to the Washington Employment Security Department, San Juan County’s 2019 average annual wage was $38,163 — which is a little more than half of the statewide average wage of $69,615. Overall, San Juan County ranked 37th out of 39 Washington counties in terms of wage income.
The median home price kicks around $600,000 and the median long-term rental cost is $1,000. Washington state’s minimum wage is $13.69, however, Seattle passed a law in 2014 that has gradually increased its minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2021. The cost of living in Seattle is only slightly higher than that of San Juan County. Perhaps raising the county’s minimum wage would assist in helping to attract and keep workers, but then housing them still remains a concern.
We implore the council to find solutions for the root cause of the housing crisis and not get too tangled up in the vacation rental weeds.