By Margery Hite
Skagit County is at a crossroads. For years, we were protected by our geography from surrounding pressures to convert agricultural, forest, and river resources to urban uses. However, in just the last few years Skagit County experienced several existential threats and we can expect more as climate changes make the Pacific Northwest both more attractive and more vulnerable.
The first threat comes from the housing development industry. Developers want to build huge housing projects of thousands of new market-rate houses in the heart of the Skagit countryside. These “fully contained communities (FCCs)” would have a devastating impact on drainage, traffic, and the working lands of the county. The developers only see “vacant land” where Skagitonians see our rural ways of life. While the public faced down the initial consideration of the FCC proposal by the County Commissioners, consideration was only delayed, not denied. Two proposals for changes to the County’s comprehensive plan to allow FCCs are pending now.
The second threat came from the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT). In search of a location for a “new, large airport within 100 miles of Seattle”, WSDOT listed two sites in Skagit County. Even though the sites were in the heart of farmland (not to mention on the floodplain), the report characterized them as “available land”. Public comment from Skagitonians was robust, but “Sea-Tac North in Skagit County” was only averted because of insufficient nearby population to meet WSDOT goals. The threat remains that Skagit County will become the target of another large infrastructure project. (Remember the proposal to bring nuclear power plants to Skagit in the late 1970s.)
Finally, the third threat actually materialized when a mega-corporation from Seattle secretly slid its way into the Skagit countryside. An Amazon warehouse facility was sited alongside some of the richest agricultural land in the county, without public awareness or participation. What will stop the next covert corporate entry into our county?
The answer to these threats must lie, at least in part, in the hands of Skagit residents. Although the Growth Management Act (GMA) in Washington lays down some ground rules for land uses throughout the state, it leaves to the people in each county/city the authority to make land use decisions to reflect the kind of community they want to have. In our case, we have been playing a reasonably successful game of defense. Now the time has come to go on the offensive to enhance and celebrate the land that is precious to all of us.
Why Include Housing?
The country is suffering a major shortfall of housing and in Skagit County no less than anywhere else. The State government is providing some money to address homelessness – emergency shelters and transitional housing to get people off the streets and on their feet again. Cities and towns are changing their zoning regulations to allow more multi-family multiplex and apartment building construction or halving the minimum size of city lots to achieve higher densities in single- family residential zones. This is mostly in aid of increasing the supply of market-based housing – houses that cost an average of $535,000 in summer of 2022. New construction is even more expensive than the average price – $600,000 for townhouses in Anacortes; $1.2 million for 4-bedroom family homes in Sedro Woolley.
Hard-working people in our county cannot afford to buy these houses. The expectation is that people making an average wage will be able to rent. Unfortunately, we also have a big problem in the supply of affordable rental housing for the people who live and work here.
The Skagitonians who struggle to rent housing are our children, our neighbors, our friends. They work on farms, in grocery stores, and at hamburger drive-throughs. They are nursing assistants, hospital clerical and custodial staff, and home health care aides. They are among the first responders. They work in our schools, and they maintain other public services that we can’t do without – roads, utilities, sewers. As the pandemic hit its stride, many workers were sent home but there were certain types of work that had to be done, regardless of risk to the workers’ health.
These are the workers we found are essential to keeping a community going during a public health crisis – they are essential workers. Yet many of them cannot afford housing in Skagit County.
How bad is it?
The median per capita (per worker) income was $35,172 in Skagit according to the 2020 US Census. That means that half the workers earned more than $35,172 and half the workers earned less than that. (In 2023, the Washington State minimum wage is $15.74 per hour or $32,739.20 annually, if we assume a 40-hour workweek.)
The median rent per month according to Census Bureau was $1,217 (2017-2021). Without even accounting for the withholding, social security and Medicare taxes that would be deducted, someone earning $35,172 annually would therefore take home less than $3,000 per month. If they paid the median rent, they would have less than $1,800 per month for everything else in their lives: food, gas, car payment, medical care, clothes, and unforeseen expenses.
“Affordable housing”, according to state and federal law, means no more than 30% of income spent on rent. 30% of $3,000/month is $900. In fact, a perusal of market-rate apartments advertised for rent over the past six months has not turned up even one apartment for rent in Skagit for less than $1,000/month.
It Gets worse
Yet that isn’t the worst of it. The vacancy rate – less than 1% – means many of those apartments at median rent are not available. While there have been new apartment buildings constructed, they have not been “affordable”: examples include new studios from $1445 – $1,779 per month; one-bedroom apartments for $1,845 – $2,004 per month. This means that half the workers in Skagit County cannot afford to rent an apartment for just themselves. If they are supporting other family members, such as children, on one income, the situation is even more dire.
The sorry fact is that new construction of market-based apartments will not solve the housing crisis for essential workers, many of whom make the average income or less.
TABLE: Average Monthly Per Worker Income vs. Average Monthly Rent Affordability in Skagit
(Data from the 2020 Census)
Moreover, a focus on affordable rental units is important in addressing homelessness, too. As social workers have noted:
“Ultimately, more affordable rental units is really what is going to impact the community the most and help us get upstream of the problem, rather than continuing to spend money to fund short-term band-aid solutions.”Comments in Consultation with agencies, DRAFT HOME ARP ACTION PLAN (on homelessness). Skagit/Island/Whatcom County HOME Consortium.
People pulling themselves out of homelessness need somewhere to live once they successfully transition out of supported housing and into supporting themselves.
This is a serious problem but it is also an opportunity for our community – an opportunity to decide how we want to grow and still cherish Skagit’s rural character. If we don’t do that, we can expect Skagit to turn into a sea of housing subdivisions that overwhelm our rural character and do not address our fundamental housing needs – housing for essential workers.
Instead, we could actively promote the special qualities of Skagit, starting with food and agriculture. So many of our essential workers work in food production, supply, and services. Imagine an “agriculture hub” that would be devoted to a year-round farmers’ market, small producer commercial kitchen space, a fiber arts center, and other small-scale farm product opportunities. It would also be a great place to locate a shuttle service to funnel traffic in agritourism and farm visits off the roads and onto a transit system.
Unused Commercial Buildings, Wasted space
There are many empty commercial buildings in the Urban Growth Areas (UGAs) of our county: spaces in shopping malls like the Cascade Mall and the Outlet Mall, former supermarkets like the old Thriftys in Burlington; former chain stores like the old Kmart on Burlington Boulevard; empty or near-empty warehouses; and other former businesses. For complicated tax reasons, the owners of the empty buildings seem to be able to hang onto them despite the fact that they are not making any money in them. This is not a good use of prime space in the UGAs where population growth is supposed to go. At the same time, the cities and towns do not want to give up commercial space since that is a source of jobs and sales tax revenues.
The answer might be to combine a ground floor center for small-scale Skagit rural enterprises with an apartment building above. This would be mixed-use housing, a popular approach to making urban spaces more livable and vibrant. The idea for an agriculture hub floated above could be a unique form of mixed-use space ideally suited to Skagit County’s character and needs. Essential workers in food production, distribution, and services would find affordable apartments above and a lively, country-focused space below. The ground floor center could house a variety of uses united under the food and agriculture banner. In addition to the spaces suggested above, an agriculture hub could include an event and music venue, a tourism booth or center, outreach facilities for local organizations, child-friendly activities, and more.
(I am indebted to Allen Rozema of Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland for ideas about an “ag hub”.)
Where do we go from here?
It can be depressing and frightening to contemplate the threats to the Skagit County we know and love. But they are not insurmountable. We Skagitonians have the tools and the right to preserve and foster the county we want. We have been playing defense very well for decades. But the game has gotten much tougher as the world changes around us. Luckily, those changes also open opportunities for us. This is actually a good time to seek federal funds to address housing and public facilities needs in a rural community like ours.
It starts with a public campaign. Leadership will have to come from the people. Otherwise, proposals will come only from those trying to make a lot of money, instead of those of us who want to preserve and enhance our county’s rural character. As they say, the best defense is a good offense. It’s no longer enough to defend against threats to Skagit County, we need to take positive action as a community to safeguard and to foster the future for our county.
We need essential housing in Skagit County for essential workers in Skagit County.
Margery Hite, a retired lawyer, served as a lawyer to county and city governments. She also served as the attorney member on a state growth management hearings board, and as an executive director for Snohomish County. She is now retired to a small farm in Bow where she raises dairy sheep and makes her own cheese.