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No more yurts. Orcas Islanders want affordable places year-round

A tiny home floats on the water
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If you can find a place to live and work on Washington's Orcas Island you’re set. But workers and business owners don't want more yurts, cabins, and tents. They want creative solutions for after the big tourism season.

The idyllic horseshoe-shaped island boasts beautiful skylines, lush forests, pristine lakes, and short distances to the beach.

“It’s a different way of life compared to much of the mainland,” said Amy Nesler, a Communications and Stewardship Manager for San Juan Islands Visitor Bureau.

For residents and workers, it’s not enough to be beautiful. Affordability is a key concern year-round and seasonally.

“There's been a lot of economic stress because tourism is one of our biggest industries,” Nesler said.

She says Covid-19 is not the sole reason behind challenges and that “some of it is just normal flux of trying to run a business on an island.”

Residents point to short-term rental sites like Airbnb and VRBO as a popular scapegoat. But, resident Gillian Smith, writes in an email that it's hard for the community to reach a consensus on whether short-term rentals actually pose a risk.

“Locals hoping to make money from the short-term rental industry don't want to lose the ability to profit off of their properties,” Smith said. “Many have pinned their hopes, plans for the future, retirements on being able to do so.”

Smith says regardless of the arguments, new solutions are needed.

Amy Nesler agrees.

“We don’t necessarily have the zoning areas to create a new neighborhood” she said.

Nesler offers that the island should seek out creative solutions, like “maybe we need to build some tiny homes instead of condos.”

Yurts, tents, trailers, and cabins

Seasonal workers, employers, and fellow islanders are navigating the landscape trying to find places to live, sometimes giving up comfort.

Temporary housing solutions are a dime a dozen. Yurts, tents, trailers, and cabins are a norm for many employees seeking temporary employment in the summer. And, if you move jobs, you likely move housing as well.

“You might find people who have been living on Orcas who have never had an Orcas address,” Jammal Williams said, adding that life on the Islands revolves around a scarcity of housing.

Jammal Williams poses for a selfie on an Orcas Island road in 2019
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Courtesy of Jammal Williams

Williams worked on Orcas Island in the winter of 2018 and 2019. At that time he lived in employee housing. He found work as a cook, housekeeper, and casual fine dining server.

In the summer of 2021, he tried to move back to the area. He planned to move to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. He found three jobs, but had no luck with housing.

“My credit score wasn’t high enough and the landlord wasn’t comfortable renting to me,” he says.

He is currently based in Houston, Texas taking care of family.

The employee housing debate

Employee housing meets the needs of many workers. For businesses that can afford it, it’s a tangible solution.

Jocelyn Cecil, the co-owner and manager of Hogstone Wood Oven in Eastsound on Orcas Island, says her business is taking on the challenge.

Inside the restaurant, Hogstone Wood Oven on Orcas Island
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KUOW/Brandi Fullwood

For the upcoming season, Hogstone aims to rent and subsidize condos to their employees.

“If we don’t take a small hit, we may not be able to have anyone work for us,” Cecil said.

Hogstone Wood Oven is temporarily closed until spring due to renovations.

Hogstone Wood Oven co-owner Jocelyn Cecil
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Courtesy of Jocelyn Cecil

Currently the restaurant employs two people — Jocelyn Cecil and Jay Blackinton. Ideally, their restaurant would have 15 workers. However, Cecil says it's been harder to find people to work who can also find housing. Potential employees have offered to live outside in tents.

Cecil said “It’s very admirable,” but working long hours in a restaurant and going home to sleep outside or in tents is not what they want for employees. Hogstone employees have had to live in substandard housing in the past.

“It’s hard on your body, it’s hard on your brain,” she said. “....We’re looking forward to the 2022 season being a touch more normal.”

Lisa Byers the Executive Director of OPAL Community Land Trust says it is not ideal to link work and housing.

“If you leave your employer you lose your housing” Byers says.

OPAL Community Land Trust is a non-profit organization in Eastsound, on Orcas Island. They provide and create permanently affordable housing options.

Byers has worked with OPAL for 26 years. She says the organization is working to meet rental needs now more than ever. But that need is overwhelming.

“The local housing market doesn’t work for wage-earning people,” Byers said.

San Juan County has the second lowest wages in the state.

“It is a wonderful place, but it's got some hidden dark sides,” Byers said.

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