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Updated: Feb 15, 2023

The Washington State Commerce Department reports that our state is ranks the worst at number 50 out of the 50 states for housing shortage. A shortage of housing creates increased rents and lack of affordability for purchases. State Lawmakers are currently considering numerous bills to address the issue.

In San Juan County, Detached Guest Housing (“Accessory Dwelling Unit – ADU”) could be part of the solutions to our affordable housing issue in the County if we could see our way through the governmental regulation and red tape. If property owners could construct a small home on their existing property, those residences could be rented out long term. The ADU would not offer as much privacy or space so the rent would be less than for a single-family dwelling on its own lot.

Prior to 2000, we were allowed to construct detached guest homes on our parcels. Back then, guest homes were defined as a structure built to the code for living space that offered a kitchen with a built-in range or cook top.

Those homes were primarily used for friends and family while visiting on the island. Many were rented out long or short term which allowed the property owner an extra income source and enhanced their ability to remain on the island. Some were occupied in exchange for property management and maintenance for the owner. Many sat empty the majority of the year.

The Friends of the San Juans took issue with the guest house regulation in place claiming that it was creating double density and lobbied against the new construction of guest homes. A private party even filed a lawsuit against the County. The County Council at that time called for a two-tiered advisory vote from the public over the issue. The voting results indicated that approximately 70% of the property owners in the County approved of guest homes and the secondary response was if they owned one, it was primarily used for guests or left vacant. Regardless of this advisory vote, the council revised the regulation to severely restrict the new construction of guest homes, now known as an ADU.

The revised regulation required that the new construction comply with the following, plus other requirements too numerous to list:

· The lot must be 5 acres or greater

· The ADU must be located within 100 feet of the main home

· The ADU must use the same water and septic systems as the main home

· The ADU must be less than 1000 sf

· The County will conduct an annual lottery for permits

Numerous other Counties in the State are experiencing the same issues regarding the housing supply crisis and affordability, it is not just an urban problem. Some Counties now have ordinances that allow ADUs and have revised their regulations further to use the ADUs to aid in their affordable housing solution. Several are allowing detached ADUs in their rural areas regardless of the size, appearance, and location on the lot.

Even the Friday Harbor Town Council is considering allowing ADUs on in-Town lots, which will be very helpful if that passes.

State Law Makers are also working on several housing bills this winter session to help Counties reach resolution. With the State’s Growth Management Act (“GMA”), one size doesn’t fit all. Unfortunately, with regards to affordable housing, we are participants of the State GMA.

Our affordability index is the highest in the state, so our County would benefit at the greatest level from enacting some of these changes that the State may be allowing.

If San Juan County would consider allowing construction of an unlimited number of detached ADUs on parcels over 1 acre, it would give us progress towards creating more affordable rental housing. It makes sense that the size still be restricted to 1000 sf and that the water and septic systems be adequate to service the main home and ADU. However, ADUs should not be required to be located within 100 feet of the main house to give both homes more potential privacy. Prohibiting a Vacation Rental Permit on the new structure would ensure that the rental terms are 30 days or greater and therefore, most likely rented to an islander.

In the long run, the ending product would be more attractive as it would most likely mirror the construction of the main home and the construction costs would be much less than the construction of an affordable rental home on a single-family lot as the property owner already owns the land and has installed the utilities.

If our local County Council Members took an advisory vote in 2023 about ADUs, I predict that the results would be very different from the past advisory vote. I believe that many islanders are much more aware of the impact of the housing affordability issue now as compared to the impact of the issue prior to year 2000. I speculate that they would vote for Detached ADUs and also say that they would rent out their existing ADU long term, or rent out a proposed ADU, if allowed to build one.

In the past, some islanders were “not in my back yard” about projects that would aid in solutions for housing, alternative power, and protecting the environment, but I think this is all changing. I believe that our community is more socially responsible and desires a diverse population base.

There are very few industries in our islands that are not impacted by lack of workers. Our restaurants, schools, healthcare systems, resorts, government, the numerous construction trades, and many other employers, are all in need of workers.

Further, there are numerous people that live on this island that are not spring chickens and are rapidly approaching that age where they need assistance with their home and yard maintenance. We have an aging population in these islands.

We all need affordable housing rental options in the islands for the citizens that want to work in the service industry and live here.

Other Options:

Governor Inslee’s 2023 budget also includes middle housing types that include duplexes up to six plex, town houses, cottage homes, and other similar type housing that fit within the existing residential zoned neighborhoods. His plan also promotes rezoning some parcels to allow multifamily construction. Perhaps we have some locations in our islands for this option as well.

We have a few affordable multifamily housing neighborhoods on 5-acre parcels partially funded through the governmental programs. Those neighborhoods include Rocky Bay, Leeward Lane, and others with in- town locations. If we incorporated some of the Governor’s plan and allowed the private sector to build in certain areas up to six structures on a 5-acre parcel, it would create more options for increased housing supply with affordable ownership as well as rentals.


If the property owners could build a detached ADU on their lot or if they could build multifamily affordable housing for resale on a 5 acre parcel, part of the solution would then come from the private sector, not a government managed body which is slowed down by their administrative systems and funding. The State realizes that the Counties must make progress with resolving the affordability of housing so our County needs to take advantage of what the State might be allowing in the near future. We can still maintain the rural nature of our Islands and at the same time provide more affordable housing for our island community members.

Friday Harbor Town Council is making progress and considering ADUs, the County should do so as well.

I recognize that sweeping changes to our ADU, GMA and other regulations are unlikely, but we must start with the thought process first and take actions where we can.

As with all my articles, the opinions expressed herein are solely my own. These opinions are based on my personal experience, observations, and from interviewing and reviewing both public and non-public information sources. Anyone interested in reviewing the proposed bills in Olympia this session can obtain a copy from official state sources.

Written by:

Merri Ann Simonson

Coldwell Banker San Juan Islands Inc




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