By Tom Moore
When Justine Gonzalez-Berg resettled in Port Townsend in 2016, returning to her primary childhood home, it was because she, “wanted to be in a place where I could be an engaged citizen in a community I cared about and had a connection to.”
If she had arrived just a few years later, her return to Port Townsend very likely would not have followed the same arc – an arc of experimentation, passion and civic engagement the kind of which any thriving community wants and needs. “When I moved back, I think a big reason why I stayed was because I ended up in a really great housing situation. A big Victorian house in Uptown with young folks living together. It was super affordable. Living there allowed me to work different jobs, to volunteer, to start Strait Up magazine … I didn’t realize how lucky I was.” In the position of Director of Housing Solutions Network (HSN) since 2019, Justine believes times have changed.
Today, stories of young professionals, essential workers, and families who cannot afford to live in Jefferson County are common, and are creating a level of insecurity that forces many to move away from home. More and more, the JCF network of change makers are connected to and impacted by these stories.
While difficult to hear, and much, much more difficult to endure, HSN has taken the prevalence and awareness of the lack of affordable housing and turned it on its head to address the problem. Everyone knows someone who knows someone who’s been affected, and the conversations can get very personal, with a level of intimacy that come from the feelings of what it means to have a home. It is the basis for the current campaign called Share Our Spaces.
The spirit behind Share Our Spaces comes from the understanding that the most immediate way to address the need for workplace housing is by using the housing resources that already exist in Jefferson County. Rent out a room, build an ADU, host a tiny house, fill an empty house. It is the fastest, cheapest and most generous solution available. It’s not going to solve the issue of affordable housing on its own. That will take time and there are a variety of efforts underway that will make a big impact in the future. What it does do is to show those who are housing insecure that people care.
The impetus behind this community-based solution comes from the formative relationship between HSN and the Jefferson Community Foundation (JCF). Housing Solutions Network was incubated by JCF in 2018, and JCF remains a close partner and fiscal sponsor of HSN. When JCF CEO Siobhan Canty initiated HSN, she decided to use a widely practiced but only recently formalized model for community action and change, called community network building. It is a unique approach to problem solving that is ideal for tackling complex issues.
Siobhan explains, “In the not-for-profit low-income housing arena, think about Habitat for Humanity or Bayside Housing. Both of those organizations have specific programs they bring to the problem. A community network is different – it is driven by the community itself. Volunteers from the community decide what to work on and what they have to offer as solutions.”
Justine elaborates: “Our basic message is, we have this problem that is impacting all of us, so we ask: what can you do as an individual, you as a neighborhood, you as a church group? What skills, resources, connections do you have?” These questions, and more importantly the conversations around them, created an environment that was ready for the formation of what HSN calls their Housing Action Teams, or HATs.
HSN’s HATs were initially convened to focus on removing specific obstacles to building affordable housing that had been identified and categorized by people knowledgeable about building affordable housing. But, as Justine and Siobhan will readily admit, they had no idea how the HATs were going to evolve. That was the idea.
Today there are six teams providing solutions including the Housing Connections HAT which works to increase rental opportunities through both “unlocking” existing units and promoting the construction of new, small units, the Permit HAT assessing what regulations and barriers, both actual and perceived, are preventing builders and landowners from creating more housing, and the Sanitation HAT launched in January 2022 in collaboration with PHLUSH to assess policy routes to promote the healthy use of grey water reuse systems to expand housing capacity.
The HATs are like a toolbox readily available for a property owner, a hopeful renter, or a prospective home to use in their own way; to solve their particular problem. HSN’s focus for 2022 will be getting this message out into the community with ongoing webinars, virtual meetings, and hopefully a return to outdoor organized events. The goal is to help turn conversations into solutions.
Justine believes that people can “underestimate how powerful those conversations and stories can be; of people sharing one of our videos with somebody who then turned their Airbnb into a residential rental or the person who leased out part of their land for a tiny house.”
When Jane Armstrong, the Chair of HSN’s Steering Committee, looks towards the future of Jefferson County, she sees a community not just understanding the problems of affordable housing, but connected to and talking about the solutions. She believes “we will have more affirming language and conversations around housing security that describe the landscape differently. The talk will be about a place where solutions are happening and people are saying ‘Yes! Yes, there is a place for me. There is a place for my family here.”
Share Our Spaces is at the forefront of this new landscape of solutions. Its power is the simplicity and personal nature of the message. Take your time. Think small steps. If you can provide a room to a seasonal worker for six months. Good. Rent your ADU to a local worker. Excellent.
When Justine looks into the future, her vision is “to be in a community where I’m excited to raise a family; where there are kids running around and a sense of intergenerational-ness, a diversity of incomes and backgrounds. I would love to see our community be able to shift in a way that allows for more racial diversity, and to become a place that is vibrant in all those ways.”
So, check it out. Share your space. Go to https://housingsolutionsnetwork.org — and find a HAT that fits – or create a new one. You’ll like how it feels.