Community Action of Skagit County makes original efforts to add housing


August 9, 2022

For years – decades, actually – folks in La Conner have talked at length about the community’s housing crunch.

In the 1980s and 1990s, when in-filling vacant lots was proposed as a preferable remedy to zoning changes that would encourage sprawl, the question was posed in the context of whether property values or human values would prevail.

Now, with a changed narrative and renewed emphasis on creative problem-solving, perhaps both values are achievable.

“We need better and more precise terminology,” Bill Henkel, executive director of Community Action of Skagit County, told the Weekly News last Tuesday. “We need to come up with a different term than affordable housing.”

His organization is substituting “creative problem-solving” for “affordable housing” – of which very little exists west of the I-5 corridor from Washington through California.

“When we hear the term affordable housing,” said Elizabeth Jennings, Community Action’s director of community engagement, “the tendency is to think in terms of poverty housing.”

Instead, said Jennings, the topic should be framed as a matter of providing housing “that our neighbors, the people who live and work here, can afford.”

That’s where the creative problem-solving comes in. Community Action has emerged as a leader in showing the possibilities when partnerships are built between non-profit agencies and private investors.

Exhibit A is Cascade Landing in Burlington, where Community Action and its partners have converted an underutilized commercial building near the Cascade Mall into over 30 second floor residential units.

It could serve as a blueprint for similar future efforts, Jennings indicated.

“We’re looking at doing something anywhere we can,” she said. “Cascade Landing is an example of the kind of creativity we need so that we have housing that our neighbors can afford.”

Again, in deference to terminology, notice that Jennings uses the word “efforts” as opposed to “projects.” That, too, is by design.

“I like to avoid terms like ‘housing project,’” she explained, noting that it invokes the image of aging, crumbling and crowded Depression era brick apartment units located in the most impoverished sections of urban America.

Jennings prefers envisioning today’s housing starts and retrofits as evolving into tomorrow’s neighborhoods.

She is optimistic that collaborative approaches can produce quality housing complementing its surrounding area and not consume over 30% of a family’s budget. That is the federal target for rental affordability.

Still, there are hurdles. Skagit County housing costs are inflated by long having the lowest home vacancy rate in Washington state. Less than one-third of housing is rentals, which serves those just entering the workforce or not yet in their peak earning years.

“To solve this, we have to humanize it, to put people first,” insisted Henkel, who served as a panelist at a public forum on local growth held at the La Conner Civic Garden Club building in June. “This isn’t a charity thing. It’s a matter of building the right community for the people that are there.”

He said teamwork between public action and private capital can be a winning game plan.

Henkel and Jennings addressed societal ills that result from stressed housing ecosystems.

If families with children cannot find housing they are forced to move, they noted. That leads to decreased enrollment in local public schools and subsequent teacher and staff cutbacks. The community dynamic suffers and its vitality is compromised. The community also loses, they said, when there are few opportunities for seniors to downsize and remain near loved ones and longtime friends.

“There’s a need for a housing ecosystem that allows neighbors to afford where they live,” Jennings said. “There’s a cycle involved, where you enter the workforce and live in an apartment, then buy a house and then downsize in later life.”

“The idea,” Henkel said, “is to put people rather than policy at the center of the equation. If we can place our value in our neighbors who live and work here and whose kids go to school here, then we can be creative with the policies. Do we agree that our schools shouldn’t lose students? Do we agree that our workers are the backbone of our economy?”

While Cascade Landing is a model to emulate, Jennings said that “different solutions will be appropriate for each community.”

Henkel emphasized that housing solutions are best when they “mix in well with the community.” Positive results are most attainable when all parties – private and public, residential and commercial, officeholders and non-elected stakeholders – collaborate.

“You want to be able to look at it as something that adds vitality to the community,” he said, “and not as something that would suck the life out of a community.”

While daunting, managing the balancing act between housing access and affordability and maintaining the Skagit region’s enviable quality of life can be done.

“We’re out there constantly and we never give up finding solutions,” Henkel said. “That’s what happens when committed and good-minded people come together.”

Jennings said Community Action is traveling a path with several branches. It is pursuing creative, critical thinking strategies, forging partnerships and developing policies that focus on housing affordability for those who live and work here.

“Our hope,” said Henkel, “is to inspire even more creativity on this going forward.”


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