I recently went out for dinner with a neighbor, a part-time, mostly-here-in-the-summer- kind of neighbor. He teaches at a university, leads research, and publishes interesting work on human behavior. As we waited to order he mentioned his frustration at it all taking so long — to order, and get served. When I responded that it was one more sign of the local housing crisis, he looked confused. He apparently didn’t understand why I was bringing up an issue in our otherwise lovely social evening, especially when it had nothing to do with the situation. Or did it? — where was that glass of wine anyway …?

I was equally baffled by him. How could he, someone so smart, have a hard time connecting the dots?  l thought it was pretty obvious:  

–     the restaurant owner (substitute hospital, dentist, mechanic, hardware or any other store owner, hair salon, et al) is struggling to find adequate staff, as

–      that staff struggles to find housing, as

–     the customer, patient, client, this guy here across the table, struggles to find local businesses adequately staffed to provide the services desired (read: how long has it taken you to get a dermatology appointment recently? or your car worked on? Probably a lot longer than even that glass of wine…

He didn’t get why it seemed worse here in Port Townsend. He thought it had more to do with a general attitude at play. The “Folks these days just don’t want to work like they used to” theory. What he and I’m learning lots of other smart friends and neighbors don’t seem to understand, is some of the realities that make the Port Townsend and East Jefferson County’s housing situation even worse than -what we see state or nationwide. My neighbor had never thought about the impact of leaving his home in Uptown empty for nine months every winter) has on our local workforce (that’s us)– and our economy].

It’s more than a problem and it’s more than a crunch. We’ve all likely heard various stories —the woman who had a great job here with the county, but after having to commute from an hour away for over a year because she couldn’t find housing here —she gave up and moved away for another position elsewhere in the state, the guy with torn rotator cuff, who had to wait over a month to get physical therapy locally.  But heck, don’t settle for anecdotes. This guy didn’t want to either. That’s when I started bringing out my favorite factoids.

Check your own housing smarts here.  

Did you know…?

•   Jefferson County ranks #38 out of 39 counties in the State for affordability for first-time, as well as all, home buyers. 

•   Jefferson County’s vacancy rate hovers between 0-1%,  the national vacancy rate is 5%

•   At any one moment, almost 14% — that’s 2733 of the houses in Jefferson County are vacant.  That means as we walk through our neighborhoods,  the cute houses, we know and love, are empty.  No wonder things seem awfully, sort of too, quiet sometimes.  But it explains all those drawn curtains and shades.

  • 42% of Jefferson County households are single-person occupancy— that’s one person living in the home.  No wonder we don’t hear so many kids playing. I can’t help but think about how many empty bedrooms and empty mother-in-law apartments that accounts for.

After I laid out a few of these to my neighbor he got quiet for a second. I saw little tiny lights starting to sparkle in those professorial eyes of his. He actually looked a little embarrassed as he began to understand. For the first time ever, he realized he, his behavior played a part. As we talked, he began extrapolating to see the much larger effect when reflecting on other friends, neighbors, and community members who are also here part-time. Just how many folks could be living in all those homes? My goal was certainly not to guilt trip him my goal was to get us talking, and. thinking. Creatively.

I’ve discovered many of my most learned friends and neighbors see our housing crisis as something vague, or theoretical; something that affects others. “We all had a hard getting started when we were young too” syndrome. Or, most commonly people assume I’m talking about housing for the homeless. That is indeed a problem, a huge one, and although related to workforce housing, a different issue. A lack of workforce housing — for all economic levels, means teachers, doctors, car mechanics, boat builders or waitstaff, folks who want to work here, have jobs here, and can’t find housing. 

We can start by being aware of the issue, and our part in it.  Wherever you are in the learning process, keep going. If you haven’t begun, then Housing Solutions Network, a local nonprofit committed to providing housing education, resources, and advocacy for the local workforce is a good place to start, with Housing 101; or their survey to see how you, and or your friends and neighbors are affected by the housing shortage. From there, we need to look at ways to help, and that might involve some behavior change. 

As seemingly “unpleasant” or irrelevant as it may feel for us, whether we’re homeowners or renters; newcomers or long-time locals, in our tiny homes, mid-century ranch ramblers, and Victorian manors, every one of us might want to begin to look at our housing behavior — and see if there’s anything we can do to help. This is more than just those looking to rent, it’s help for the restaurant owners, the hospital, and everyone else.  It helps us, and our community thrive.  For example:

  • Turn your AirBnb into a long-term rental, 
  • Move your art studio to your spare bedroom and rent out that ADU, 
  • Share your home with an on-call hospital staff, barista, or farmer. 
  • Ask your favorite nonprofit/business/community group- if they have a housing need for even short-term interns, or long-term staff that might fit your space. 

Get creative. There are so many great things about home sharing that we don’t hear about. And so many different ways of doing it.

A friend of mine in Berkeley knew she wouldn’t be able to maintain her four-bedroom home after the kids left, but she also didn’t want to move. She wanted to stay in her home. Somehow, starting out by renting one bedroom out to a university student, led to another and another. 20 years later, she now rents 3 bedrooms at a time. She not only made enough money to pay for a small remodel so she could move downstairs and have more privacy but she’s also augmented her retirement (while still keeping the rental rates reasonable). She’s learned what works for her. More than anything, she feels like she has enriched her life significantly..Sharing a home can be a wonderful, positive thing, whether it’s to a student or retiree, boatbuilder, or surgeon.  We hear all too often we hear about the downside without hearing about the positive.  

To be clear, I am not suggesting we have to turn our homes into communes or rooming houses. I am saying it’s time to think out of the box a little bit. The truth is, we are all impacted by the housing shortage – whether we are looking for housing or not. And sadly, solutions aren’t just going to happen without all of us committing.  It’s not like something the City Council can just handle, or the government can just deal with. We are going to have to shift our mindsets around this. We have to work together to brainstorm, create, and employ solutions. Like anything else it starts with understanding and acknowledging the root(s) of the problem. This is real. Now… where’s that glass of wine?

Stats: 2023 Q2 report from the WA Center for Real Estate Research, University of Washington

2022 US Census – American Community Survey


  1. Thanks for sharing this thoughtful essay. How, “20 years later,” can “she now rent 3 bedrooms at a time” under the governing zoning code?

  2. My son, who grew up in Jefferson County, has been trying for four years to move back to the area. The prices ranged from $400,000 to over a million, but there really aren’t a lot of places available.

  3. What a thoughtful piece of writing. I was forwarded it by my parents, who live outside Port Townsend. I’ve been lucky to get to know your lovely town a bit over the last 15 years, including some of its troubles.

    One thing that surprised me here: why do all your recommendations here focus on the personal ways to react to this systemic problem, without also mentioning that there might be systemic solutions?

    Here is Port Townsend’s zoning map:

    Everywhere marked in yellow (so, in the overwhelming majority of the city) it’s illegal to build even a small apartment building. (In the non-pale yellow areas, of which there are a handful mostly on the west edge of town, you can go up to 16 homes per building, but you need a 40,000 square foot lot just for that!). That’s just bonkers to me! Port Townsend is so beloved exactly because of its historic walkable downtown. Why on earth does the city continue to forbid the construction of additional Port Townsendness?

    Of course this wouldn’t, alone, solve the problem you describe here. (Neither would a handful of households taking on a housemate.) But, like the personal measures you identify so gracefully, it’d help.

    • Michael, great comments. having lived here quite some time now, what I find is that even where there are commercial zoning capabilities, such as the corner of F St. and San Juan, the economics of these locations seem to keep people from actually developing them. There are new apartment buildings that have gone in out near the first roundabout, recently, and more are planned out there. But we also have a lot of empty relatively modern buildings.

      • Thanks, Al. Why is that an argument against legalization, though? As they say in sports, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.

  4. Nicely done! The salient points, call to action, and realization of the structural mess we’re in all resonate. Thank you!

  5. Thank you Corky Parker for doing such a great job upending the common point of view that staffing issues are because people “just don’t want to work”. It IS a housing issue here. Anyone with secure housing should consider learning more given how easy it is to make baseless assumptions. I have been paying attention to housing realities since the inception of Housing Solutions Network (HSN) 5 years ago and continue to learn more, all the time. See: https://housingsolutionsnetwork.org/

    A great way to get involved is happening at Finnriver, Tuesday November 14th at 4:30 for HSN’s Annual Meeting and 5 year Birthday Party! All are welcomed! The housing problem is big enough, it will take the whole community to fix it!

  6. Putting the links to the stats into the digital article would help give credibility to this excellent story and allow curious and/or skeptical community members to follow you down the research rabbit hole.

  7. My husband I got creative with housing in order for at least one of our children to stay in Port Townsend. We built another residence slash garage on our property in the county. We have less than an acre and no, we did not sub divide the property. I think if low interest loans or monies were available to homeowners; more people could develop their homes or property to accommodate another person or household. The homeowner could be held to a contract for a certain amount of time to make the redevelopment or building available to renters.

  8. Thanks for the really thoughtful post about our housing reality and nudge for creative thinking and behavior change.

  9. This rang so true. We took a local musician in after storing their things during the pandemic. When they found themselves without a home we opened ours and have had a wonderful guest and experience for the past 14 months. They have now found a home which they can afford (another good heart) and we have the good feeling of helping another. As our lives near their horizon we were able to give hope. That joy works both ways.

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