03/20/2006: "LETTERS IN SUPPORT OF AN EXCISE TAX"In May, we will vote to authorize a 0.5% sales tax on every real estate sale to provide funds for a San Juan County Affordable Housing Program.
To the Editor:
There are many reasons to support making affordable housing available in San Juan County but I would like to emphasize that this is an investment with real and immediate economic benefits that far exceed its modest costs. Begin with a fact: the percentage of our population between the ages of 25 and 44 has fallen by one-third since 1990. These are the people who are raising families, working in stores, volunteering at our schools, coaching soccer, serving as volunteer fire fighters and providing essential services such as emergency medical assistance, and repairing roads. Thus despite a 50% increase in our total population, there are actually fewer people to perform these duties now than there were fifteen years ago!
What does this mean in real terms?
1. Increased prices for things we buy. Because housing costs are so much higher here, employers must pay a premium to retain a workforce. Prices must be increased to pay for these costs.
2. Unavailability of services and products. As this crisis deepens, employers can no longer compensate workers enough without raising prices to an unacceptable level. Then we are all forced to purchase goods and services off-island, incurring increasing ferry costs and inconvenience. This is a self-reinforcing cycle. As more people spend money off-island, more stores and services providers close. Also sales tax revenues decrease and must be replaced by higher property taxes, another added cost. People in this age group are the ones who start new businesses and the fact that there are less of them means the business that closes won't be replaced.
3. Paid workers must replace volunteers. Our volunteer fire departments are having a difficult time recruiting new members. Soon we will have to hire professional firefighters. This has hidden as well as obvious cost implications. Clearly taxes will increase. Last year, our insurance company refused to extend fire insurance on our island home after the fire chief informed them of these recruiting difficulties. We were able to secure coverage but only after agreeing to pay substantially increased premiums.
4. Increased Educational Costs. The State of Washington provides funding to school districts based on the number of students enrolled. As our school population decreases, income falls but fixed costs remain unaffected. To make up this difference we will have to increase our M&O levies, another added cost. Also 50% of the current teachers on San Juan Island will retire within the next five years. These individuals have lived here for a long time and secured housing when costs were low. Their replacements will not be as fortunate. Either we prepare to pay significantly higher salaries or find a way to subsidize their housing.
I have focused on economic factors but the less tangible factors should not be forgotten. How much "richer" are we from having farmers' markets here on the islands? And what about live theatre, musical performances and wonderful restaurants? These depend on the energy of young people and the San Juan Islands would be sterile indeed without them. Please consider your own self-interest and what having a diverse population here means for you and vote for the REET.
Dr. Larry Soll
San Juan Island.
To the Editor:
Is Albert Hall a big meanie? Despite his seemingly mean spirited views I don't think so. I'm sure he thinks of himself as a good person who wants the best for all of us. The problem is he's locked into rigid ideologies. Taxes Bad, Government Bad, Welfare Bad. Hey, I don't like paying taxes either. I want efficient, effective and limited government just like he does. We must have some government and our system where electeds decide on what and how much we spend is a good one. Where the system is failing is the citizen's responsibility to monitor what government does, demand competence and vote intelligently. Democracy will not run on automatic pilot. I know everyone is busy but I fear we've become very complacent and yet complaining.
Others have done a great job describing here the need for the Housing Bank. What about Albert's argument: Why should we give anyone a break at taxpayer's expense? Political outrage at ‘welfare moms' has been popular enough to get presidents elected, example Reagan. While I don't want to see welfare cheats either I wish there was similar outrage at ‘corporate welfare' taking gargantuan sums compared to all welfare scammers combined. Look at just the recent major legislation written by the corporations like the Energy Bill, Medicaid Drug Bill, Bankruptcy Bill, and all the no-bid war and Katrina contracts. Do you hear a peep of protest from Mr. Hall? I think we all agree we don't want anybody cheating us. OK, so what about our Housing Bank?
Yes, it's a new tax burden paid by homebuyers: 0.5% off the real estate transaction. Yes, you could say that it raises the cost of entry for all. That is a cost. But the benefit is ‘perpetually' affordable homes and apartments which we desperately need. The problem is way bigger than the ability of private funding to deal with and the private groups, so far, are unable to do the ‘perpetually affordable' homes we need. Those who get to own these homes sacrifice price appreciation. It's a reasonable and fair trade off. And our community will be richer for the teachers, County workers, etc. who will be able to live here. To reject it just because it's ‘government and taxes' is rigid shortsightedness which will make our community a poorer place to live.
Howard ‘Howie' Rosenfeld
To the Editor:
A hearty thanks to Island Guardian for posting these different sides to the ‘island affordable housing' issue as we move towards the May 16th vote on funding the new San Juan County Housing Bank.
To me, Hall's arguments represent the typical conservative ideologue's view of the world:
The Free Market Takes Care of Everything. Just Let It Be.
Losleben and the Orcas Research Group have instead come up with something designed for our special circumstances in the San Juan Islands.
Here we sit in a county that usually has the highest home prices in the state – along with some of lowest salaries in the whole state. A free market slam dunk?
As Hall says, this has brought all island home-owners a far higher personal net worth. Indeed it has. Yet living on these islands, we can't expect our nurses and school teachers to move 40 miles inland to find cheaper housing – as most other rich coastal communities on the mainland do. Increasingly these needed members of our community cannot afford to buy homes in the islands where they work. And half of our teachers are retiring in the next few years. Ooops. A little piece of free market banana peel maybe?
Losleben says, put both public and private funds to work here with a small tax (1/2 of one percent) on new home purchases. That can help fund a community-directed affordable housing effort that fits our specific island circumstances and population.
We can keep a fully functioning, diverse community on the islands with home financing that fits a broader island population than most federal and state funds can do.
No free market jingo – no depending on government-only solutions. An island designed, tightly targeted San Juan Islands- specific solution sounds right to me. Vote yes on May 16th.
To the Editor:
In May we will have a chance to decide whether San Juan County will adopt a Real Estate Excise Tax (REET). This levy of one-half of one percent on new real estate purchases in the County would boost the funds available for truly affordable housing here. At a time of declining federal and state support, organizations such as the Home Trust on San Juan Island, OPAL on Orcas, and the Land Trust on Lopez would receive direct support for their work. The new Salal Neighborhood in Friday Harbor is just one example of what these groups can accomplish. This Carter Avenue community recently completed by the Home Trust provides homes for fifteen families already resident in the islands that otherwise could not own a place to live here. Other organizations boast similar recent achievements.
Everyone has seen the figures about home ownership in the San Juans–low median income and high real estate prices. The numbers tell us that if you are a construction worker, schoolteacher, secretary, or grocery clerk, your family cannot afford to buy into housing in San Juan County. This situation is very unlikely to improve. In fact, it is getting worse all the time, as housing prices continue to spiral upward, and median income remains stagnant. Young people hoping to start families see that they must leave the islands in order to move ahead. As they leave, the population grows older and less varied. Without the diverse populace required for smoothly running communities, those who stay behind will find themselves in an increasingly barren society, one with fewer young people and fewer people to perform necessary jobs. Our situation should be a matter of concern for everyone who values residing in these islands.
In the East, daily commuters, sometimes travelling by air, work in island retreats where workers have been priced out of the housing market. This expensive solution is not one that we should plan to adopt in solving the problem. It is also mistaken to imagine that healthy communities can exist without these essential workers. The residents of this county deserve stable diverse communities as much as anyone elsewhere. The entire county will benefit from the affordable housing that the REET will help support.
William and Karin Agosta
San Juan Island
To the Editor:
Thinking about the Housing Bank vote coming up in May - one where a "yes" vote is essential to the well-being of these islands, in my opinion - an old saying comes to mind: sometimes we have to look at where we've been to better see where we're going. Where are we going as human beings? The words of my great-grandfather, Theodore Bliss Cunningham, seem to speak directly to our happiness as a community: "Look about you," he wrote in 1888, "and see who are the happiest people you know.
If you can get below the surface, probably the happiest of all will be those who can feel at the end of each day that they have in some way made the hours brighter for some one of their fellows. "Would those who can afford $475,000 (the median home price) to live in the San Juan Islands really begrudge the one half of one percent Real Estate Excise Tax to help make home ownership possible for those less financially fortunate than they are? Looking below the surface, I would guess not, for in their hearts people love to give. After all, we "spend" our lives on Earth, we don't hoard them.
As a senior citizen, many of my friends and family have died or are close to death, and not one has ever said that they wish they had been less generous. Where are we going as human beings? It would make sense to evolve toward our greatest happiness - which, my great-grandfather suggests, resides in an ever-increasing generosity of spirit.
This May, let's vote yes for the Housing Bank and make the days brighter for many of our fellows - and watch our own happiness grow.
Wendy E. Shepard
San Juan Island
To the Editor:
Whoah, Albert! Are we in San Juan County or Beverly Hills? "Why do we want to encourage the presence of people that cannot afford to live here?" Well, let's see:
Wages earned in-county (1999, not including investment income, which makes up 49% of the county's total personal income), average $19,548 and rank 38th among Washington's 39 counties. According to the Northwest Multiple Listing Service, the average price of a home in San Juan County last year was $465,000. (Please visit http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/realestate/2002766822_appreciation29.html for the entire article.) You do the math!
Those "people" you don't want to encourage are the very ones that teach your children, bag your groceries, cut your hair, put out your fires, clean your teeth, help you in times of medical need, load your ferry, service your car, process your garbage, clean your house, serve you your meal out: the list is endless. When the volunteer fire service is staffed by a cadre of wealthy retired executives, I'll gladly get down off my soapbox, and have a little more time to spend with my family! When someone buying that $465,00 house volunteers their time (and obtains the education) so that a teacher can be paid a living wage, I'll lay off on my worrying.
Those "people", Albert, are my people, and I daresay they're yours, too. They are as fiercely invested in what being an "islander" means -the pride of community, the beauty and grace of our home, and the vision of belonging to such a special place- as you are. In fact, they're so invested they are willing to struggle tooth and nail to grow (or sustain) their roots here. "They" are a vastly silent majority, and "they" deserve more than a cursory let-them-eat-cake dismissal.
The affordable housing issue is about so much more than putting a roof over a teacher or volunteer firefighter's head. At the very least, it's a wake up call for the people of San Juan County -ALL the people, to look our own increasingly classist reality in the face, and work proactively for a future that preserves the value and integrity of this community.
Thank you, Albert, for giving me an absolute affirmation of why I'll be voting FOR the housing bank.