Parenting has never been easy, but with today’s economic climate, child care shortages and housing crisis, stresses are piling up.
“In today’s world it’s challenging to be a working parent,” says San Juan County Early Learning Coordinator Kristen Rezebek, and even more so in the San Juan Islands.
One of the largest challenges for working families is a critical lack of affordable housing. According to a 2021 Community Childcare Needs Assessment survey and final report sponsored by the Joyce L. Sobel Family Resource Center and the San Juan Island Community Foundation, multiple factors contribute to San Juan Island’s current housing crisis.
The report states an inordinate number of homes are used as vacation/second homes by part-time residents. An astounding 43.4% of local housing stock on San Juan Island is considered “vacant” with respect to not having full-time occupancy, as compared to the Washington State average of 9.3%.
Second, the report found that San Juan Island has had an extremely low rate of multi-family housing unit construction, with no new permits issued between 2009-2015, and very few in the ensuing years. The resulting lack of affordable apartment rental options, combined with a dearth of available housing stock in general and rapidly rising real estate prices all contribute to workers’ inability to find and maintain adequate housing, especially as wage growth remains stagnant.
According to Jennifer Armstrong, Executive Director of the Joyce Sobel Family Resource Center in Friday Harbor, rent is steadily way out of scale in the islands, with houses selling at astronomical rates, especially over the past several years during COVID.
“Safe and functional housing is a key element for family health,” says Armstrong. “We can’t ask people to participate in a healthy community without opportunities for housing.” Having a reliable, affordable home is the foundation upon which everything else depends, and the stress of not having a secure place in which to live negatively affects a family’s ability to thrive.
As housing remains financially out of reach or simply unavailable for many working families, the very fiber of a community frays.
Ironically “there’s tons of housing assistance money available,” says Armstrong, there just aren’t affordable houses available to provide families with financial assistance.
What’s perhaps even more critical than secure housing to family health, says Armstrong, is childcare for families with young children. “The traditional model is no longer viable. Compensation here in the islands is not viable” for many working families.
Wage disparity is a significant factor in this equation. The survey found that wages for most childcare staff were averaging $17 per hour, and local compensation for childcare workers fell far below the current “living wage” rate of $30.38 needed for a single adult to support a household with one child.”
As a result, “Childcare on the island is overloaded generally,” says Armstrong, citing a concerning number of recent closures of childcare facilities on the island with more children than there are spots available.
In the past four years, San Juan Island has lost close to 45% of its professional childcare capacity. Facilities that have closed include three childcare centers for toddlers & preschoolers, one preschool and one children’s play center that offered drop-in childcare hours.
The needs assessment report states this decreased capacity significantly impacts a local childcare system that was already challenged by multiple factors, including no licensed infant care; a shortage of childcare spaces for toddlers; and a lack of full-time, year-round childcare options for working parents.
According to Rezebek, “All our Early Learning/Childcare providers in the county have faced numerous struggles with hiring and maintaining their workforce, but on San Juan Island it has become a crisis and existing centers have had to reduce their available slots or close entirely due to shortage of teachers. We have lost four schools in the last two years.”
“When compared to the San Juan Island School District, for example,” says Rezebek “jobs in childcare and early learning are ‘poverty wage jobs.’ Early Learning professionals currently are compensated far below a living wage and most of these professionals are not receiving benefits as part of their compensation.”
Rezebek said the county could play a significant role in early childhood development by finding ways to provide subsidies that will pay early learning professionals a living wage and provide parents with access to high-quality staffing.
“We are actively engaged with our Early Learning Providers to find ways to help grow this workforce and address the staffing challenges and potential strategies to help support those interested in early learning as a profession and attainment of an early childhood education degree,” adds Rezebek. “We have met with the Economic Development Council, Skagit Valley College, Joyce L Sobel Family Resource Center, Head Start, Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program, and San Juan Island Community Foundation to look at workforce development.”