Two weeks ago, the waitress that served our Thursday morning breakfast for the past couple years quit. She and her husband could no longer find affordable housing on Vashon and are moving to Spanaway. You may have noticed a lot of “now hiring” signs lately. I certainly have. Having lived here for almost 50 years, I’ve found that such signs are not common and don’t stay up very long. It used to be that a job on Vashon was a much sought after plum. To be able to live and work on the Island and not have to commute was a dream come true. I suspect that the reason those jobs are open is similar to the reason our waitress is leaving. Will they remain unfilled for the same reason? What happened?
About 40 years ago, we started promoting Vashon as a really nice place to live and a regional destination. Obviously, this was a big plus for realtors, home sellers, and most businesses: more people, more demand, higher prices, more business. Even the service sector people could expect a boost as more jobs opened up. The trouble is, we priced ourselves right out of our own homes. The newer arrivals necessarily had more money. They had to in order to be able to stay in the bidding for high-demand homes on Vashon. Those of us that grew up here and inherited homes or bought them more than 40 years ago were in a great position to advance our fortunes. As we sold homes for huge profits, we found that we too could afford to get into the bidding for a much better place than the one we just sold, thus adding to the bidding frenzy.
However, if you rented, or tried to buy less than thirty years ago, your choices were becoming more limited. Alas, while housing prices grew by 200 to 1000 percent over the last thirty years, service sector wages grew by maybe 40 to 50 percent. The housing market is subject to dramatic upturns, with a given house sometimes doubling in value in a very short time. We would never tolerate such increases in the cost of our goods and services, and wages reflect that. If one didn’t have to pay out most of one’s income for housing, life out here would be affordable.
As much as we have always wanted a diverse community, we are on the way to establishing an airtight apartheid based on income. As the last of the cheap, older rentals are bought and transformed into high-value homes or air B&B’s, all the people that work on Vashon will be commuting in here everyday, much like the “help” at a large mansion.
But will they? We have all seen the proposed changes in ferry service. We may be able to get better service than they are offering, but we need to recognize the writing on the wall. As Kitsap continues to grow and we remain the same, we can expect that our ferry service is going to decline. That may be enough to convince our service sector people to pursue work closer to their mainland homes.
Who on the island will fill those jobs? If they paid as much as a programmer at Microsoft gets, there would be some takers. If not, there are a number of older islanders with paid-for homes that do fine on those wages, but not anywhere near the number we need. We could see many of our stores, restaurants, our schools, and Vashon Community Care with acute labor shortages. Suddenly, our haven in the Sound is not looking so good anymore.
Vashon Household has managed to build some projects over the years that have provided shelter for a number of those low- and moderate-income families. Those that have been lucky enough to live in those projects are very appreciative, but the waiting lists are long, and the loss of existing low-income rentals has probably far exceeded the ones we have created. There is something wrong in the way our economy works when a special situation needs to be established so that vital members of the community can continue to live here. Our time would be best served if, instead of rescuing “babies in the river,” we figured how those babies ended up in the river in the first place.
Our laissez faire capitalist economic model has failed us, and perhaps if we thought more in a socialist way, we could balance this out. Restoring some semblance of income equity across the board would go a long ways toward making our capitalist model work.
Instead of maximizing commodity value, we should be trying to maximize general sustainable prosperity where everybody can provide for themselves regardless of income, with no need for special subsidies, charity, or handouts. The solution will have to be bold and imaginative. I’ve talked about community land trusts and other means to control the value of property so as to put people before profits. In the meantime, maybe if we all conducted ourselves with a little more awareness of the consequences of our own actions, we might start to see some solutions.