Conversations in Community
Housing Solutions Network

Welcome. It’s May, and this is the first of an ongoing series of conversations I’ll be having most every month with people in Jefferson County about what they love about living here, what they are concerned about and what they are doing about it. I am a relative newbie to the area (in Port Townsend since 2020) and am excited to work as a volunteer with Jefferson Community Foundation writing this blog. I like telling people’s stories and also, selfishly, it helps me to get to know you, the community, a bit better. So, thank you for that

For this, the inaugural post, I talked with Liz Revord, Director of Housing Solutions Network (HSN), and Bill Wise, Chair of HSN’s Steering Committee about affordable housing in Jefferson County, and East Jefferson County in particular.

“What we strive to do is to flip a switch in somebody’s mind where they can say, ‘Yes, I can be part of the solution” – Liz Revord, Director of HSN

When it comes to affordable housing in Jefferson County, there are few people more informed about the issue than Liz Revord and Bill Wise. I was pleased to spend some time with them to better understand the problem and, more importantly, hear about the progress HSN and its network of volunteers have made, as well as the work that still needs to be done.

For those of you not familiar with HSN, it was first initiated in 2018 by Jefferson Community Foundation (JCF) in response to the growing workforce housing crisis in East Jefferson County, Washington. It is a grassroots network located in Port Townsend that remains a Field of Interest Fund with JCF. As Liz says, “HSN’s focus is on the workers and families who make too much to get subsidies for subsidized housing, but yet not enough to purchase a market-rate house.” 

To illustrate Liz’s point, here are a few key data points:

  • Without significant savings or outside financial support, a family in Jefferson County would have to earn at least $130,000 in order to even consider financing a house purchase of median value under cost burdened conditions, or earn $187,000 to keep costs within the affordable range. (Affordable Housing 101)
  • In 2023, Jefferson County ranked 38th out of the 39 counties in Washington for affordability for both first-time home buyers and homebuyers in general. (Washington Center for Real Estate Research)
  • To make the housing market more equitable, the Washington State Department of Commerce projects that close to 4,000 new homes in Jefferson County are needed in the next decade. (Washington State Department of Commerce)
  • In 2021 close to 40% of people employed in Jefferson County live outside of Jefferson County. The role of the pandemic on the housing market cannot be underestimated.  It exacerbated workers’ commutes, cost of living, and general affordability for many families. (US Census)

How the problem hits home

These are just a few of the daunting facts of our housing crisis. But even more compelling are the stories from community members who are affected by those facts. For example, take Andy Cochrane and his company Power Trip Energy which specializes in the design and installation of grid-tied solar systems on the Olympic and Kitsap Peninsulas.

Andy is proud of the fact that four of his employees have been able to buy their first homes while working for Power Trip Energy. However, as he says, “One difficult aspect for two of them, though, is the commute.  They could not afford homes in Jefferson County that fit their families, so one lives in Sequim, and one lives in Suquamish.” They have tried to address those commutes by providing electric vehicles, but that does not always solve the problem.  It’s frustrating because, as he says, “Since our mission is to reduce pollution by making clean energy, we are keenly aware that affordable housing close to employment is not just an economic issue. For us it is also an environmental issue.”

As I think most of us know, affordable housing as an issue has been around for a while. Take the story of Siobhan Canty, the Executive Director of JCF. She moves from Seattle to Port Townsend in 2017 to join JCF. It is a big move for a new job in a new community, and it is not helped by how difficult it is to find a place to live in town. However, Siobhan being Siobhan, ultimately figures it out but not before getting a first-hand sense of the challenges of living and working in what was, and still is, a bit of a housing desert. Once settled into JCF, with her personal experience of being housing-challenged still fresh in her mind, Siobhan and her team launches Housing Solutions Network, giving it the critical financial and administrative support it needs to get up and running.

Or, take Liz, as in our Liz Revord of HSN. She moves to Jefferson County in 2018 with her husband who is taking a new job working for the County. At first, they try, unsuccessfully, to find a place to live in Port Townsend. Over the next year, even though they are both working full-time, they struggle to find an affordable place to live. At one point she recalls, “amongst our friends, we were the only couple that had indoor plumbing.” In 2022, as Liz is interviewing to become the new Director of HSN, she makes her case to become the first full-time employee of HSN so that she can qualify for a home loan. JCF helps make that happen. In the end it would take 4 years before Liz and her husband, two working professionals, to finally purchase a home in Jefferson County. In those years they viewed 75 houses and put in 16 offers!

The ever moving balance between wages and affordable housing clearly has an impact. Employers and employees are in tension. Some, like with Liz, HSN and JCF were able to work it through and find an equilibrium that works.

That said, the “can I afford to live here?” question continues to be asked and its impact on the business community persists.

I asked Dunia Faulx, Chief Planning and Advocacy Officer at Jefferson Healthcare, about the impact of housing on healthcare in Jefferson County and this is what she told me.

“One of the first questions that people ask during interviews is what the local housing market is like, and we have to be very honest with them about the current environment. Then, when potential staff are offered positions and they decline, it is often due to difficulty in finding housing. We’ve also lost incredibly talented staff because their lease ended and they were unable to find another place to live. These are nurses, ER technicians, and environmental services staff – people who are directly responsible for making sure our hospital can take care of this community.”

Not only can the current housing market can make it harder to schedule a timely medical appointment, it can also make it more challenging to book a table at your favorite restaurant. Just ask Kris Nelson, owner of Sirens and The Old Whiskey Mill. Over the last five years she says. “I’ve had four people turn down management jobs because they could not find a place to live in the area.  I have even more of my staff having to move to Clallam and Kitsap County to find housing and eventually many of them move on to other jobs when they realize the difficulty of the commute.”

Sharing Spaces

It’s clear: the challenge of attracting and keeping young families and sustaining a healthy workforce is persistent. It comes at us in many different ways: from the lack of housing inventory, and more concentrated urban growth to exploring ways to redistribute resources we already have in a manner that is beneficial to everyone. It’s complicated and a lot of hard work.

However, as Liz and Bill will be the first to emphasize, it is not them, not HSN, who does the work. Rather, as Liz says, “The work being done is being done by all the passionate people in the community who have the energy, resources, and momentum to create local community-based solutions.” Everything HSN does revolves around the inherent strength and creativity of the local community in finding the best solutions to share the resources that already exist in a way that is beneficial to everyone. Examples of how this works can be seen in HSN’s Share Our Spaces campaign, including Home Sharing and how homeowners can downsize into an ADU and rent their primary residence.

The cool thing about thinking outside of the box is that it can not only work for homeowners, but also for businesses (and their employees) as well. Take Dog Townsend for example. Owners Steve and Amanda know housing is unaffordable to many who work in the service industry. At the same time, as small business owners they know employee wages are as high as they can afford to pay. How to find the right balance? Well, here is how they summed it up:

“Our employee Cara lives on our property in employee housing and pays $750 a month (it just went up from $650 after 4 ½ years) for a 3-bedroom, two two-bath manufactured home.  We have dreams to replace this older model with 2 smaller rentals so we could offer more housing. Cara has lived on our property for 5 years.  We love having her here and feel super lucky to have her as a part of our lives. Occasionally, we even get to play a quick game of ping pong after work.”

Community Network Building

Amanda and Steve and Dog Townsend have found a nice blend of compassion and practicality, i.e., it is just good business to have their employee Cara living in an affordable home. It is also a good example of a concept called Community Network Building, an idea integral to the work of the Jefferson Community Foundation. As Siobhan Canty describes it, “Community Network Building empowers diverse individuals to forge bonds, share resources, and transcend societal divides, fostering an inclusive environment where collective action thrives.” In addition to Housing, JCF also hosts Networks dedicated to Childcare, Food Security, Financial Assistance, and Basic Needs.

One of Liz’s favorite success stories to tell, and one which exemplifies how one individual can become a key building block in a network community, comes from a campaign in 2022, where HSN mailed a Share our Spaces flyer to every resident in Jefferson County telling them about housing options ranging from downsizing into an ADU and renting out their main residence to putting a tiny home-on-wheels on their property to house-sharing.

Liz acknowledges they got a fair amount of ‘how dare you tell me what to do with my personal property’ responses, but one of the first positive responses came from a homeowner in Port Hadlock who said the flyer motivated him to move out of his long-time personal office and open it up as a rental, but when he began to pack up his library of books, he realized he wasn’t sure exactly what he was doing, so he called HSN for help.

In response, as Liz recalls, “We put together a crew of volunteers including a retired contractor, an interior designer, and a local lender who focused on affordable housing, and went out for house call. And guess what? The homeowner has rented out that unit twice since 2022. And all I can think of right there is, yes, that is what we strive to do – flip a switch in somebody’s mind where they can say, ‘I can be part of the solution!”

Flipping a switch, making a connection.  Whether it is Andy, Dunia or Kris; or Amanda, Steve and Cara; or a gentleman in Port Hadlock, this is how Community Network Building works. 

What HSN does

It is HSN’s mission is to educate, engage, and advocate for the community of East Jefferson County.

To educate: For example, HSN will be launching two workforce surveys on April 20th in hopes of getting more up-to-date data on the current workforce housing needs both from the perspective of local businesses and employers as well as employees detailing what their needs are.  The results will be shared among government decision-makers, builders and contractors, and the community at large to inform development that supports a diversity of occupations and incomes in our community

In addition to gathering new information to help leaders make better decisions, HSN has a robust on-line data base of resources for those navigating the housing market, For example:

            – Affordable Housing 101

            – Fair Housing Act & Landlord-Tenant Law Resources

            – Government Planning & Policy

To engage: Building an army of champions is the most important part of the solution and HSN’s Housing Assistant Teams (HATs) are just that. Based on community input and active network interests, HSN creates a range of areas through which to engage.

This year HSN launched four new areas of focus, which means four new HATs.

  • Housing Protection
  • Business Relations
  • Government Relations
  • Outreach and Education

To advocate:  As Bill Wise says, “Advocacy is essential. Many of the permitting and zoning changes that have been made recently have been because we’ve raised awareness and advocated for change.”  Bill is quick to remind us that City and County codes and policy are tools that can be utilized to encourage development that is aligned with our values and to the benefit of the most people.  So, while elections are important and have consequences, it is important to remember that local officials are continually seeking and influenced by public participation and comment – even just one voice can have a big impact.

How JCF Helps

Jefferson Community Foundation connects people, ideas, and resources to build a future of opportunity for all in Jefferson County. It’s what they do and who they are.

Throughout its history as an organization, from its founding to the work it is doing today, HSN has looked to JCF for support and guidance. As Bill notes, “We, HSN, would not exist had Jefferson Community Foundation not had a deep understanding of the critical needs within our community and our county as well as the foresight to bring some people together and start talking about housing solutions.”

A more recent example of JCF’s impact on HSN was a Strategic Planning Workshop hosted by Jefferson Community Foundation and facilitated by Anne Morrisseau, a change advisor and facilitator with 35 years of experience. HSN was expanding its Steering Committee from three to eight members and according to Liz, “This gave us our first in-person training opportunity to dive into the mission and goals of what we wanted to achieve in the upcoming months and years.  It also allowed us to think creatively, receive feedback from three other small nonprofits in our community, and hear best practices and – equally as important – lessons learned from our fellow cohort organizations.”

So, when you, or your friends wonder why you can’t get dinner in Port Townsend after 8 PM on a Saturday night, or why your favorite coffee spot is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays or why you have to go to Poulsbo or Silverdale for medical appointments, understand that the underlying reason, and much more, is connected to affordable housing.

Well, that’s May’s conversation. Hope you enjoyed it.

Thanks for being out there.