MOUNT VERNON — Skagit County's lack of housing is hurting the region's economy, John Sternlicht, CEO of the Economic Development Alliance of Skagit County, said at a forum Thursday.
At the forum on affordable housing and the local economy, Sternlicht said he has heard stories from employers who feel they can't grow in Skagit County because their employees have nowhere to live.
He said the stories are "mostly anecdotal, but very consistent."
"Companies won't be able to expand, they won't relocate here and, heaven forbid, they might leave," Sternlicht said.
Skagit County's average rent requires households to earn $40,000 per year to keep from being cost burdened, said Kayla Schott-Bresler, housing resource coordinator with the county. Cost-burdened households are those that spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing.
"But we know most workers aren't making $40,000," she said.
Retail is one of the largest employers in the county, but those jobs tend to be among the lowest paying. If retail employees can't live here, they won't work here, Sternlicht said.
Even fields that pay mid-range salaries, such as health care, are faced with this problem, he said.
"More and more workers are competing for limited housing that they can't afford anyway," Schott-Bresler said.
However, Schott-Bresler presented a silver lining during her talk Thursday. Large construction projects, such as housing complexes, go a long way to bolstering the economy, she said.
Such projects bring well-paying jobs to the community and give business to local builders, all while creating more housing, she said.
"The economic benefits of a construction boom, for builders, architects and engineers, can be pretty significant," Sternlicht said.
In some communities, Schott-Bresler said employers have taken matters into their own hands by offering rental assistance or collaborating to build employee housing.
"It's a very small piece of the puzzle in some communities," she said.