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Affordable Housing: Mission Impossible?

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• In Bellingham,

The Housing / Economy / Quality of Life Trilemma

Housing affordability cannot be addressed in a vacuum because affordable housing is only one part of the Housing Trilemma, which consists of affordable housing, a strong economy and a high quality of life.

As the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis (OOEA) recently found, “Cities face tradeoffs in terms of housing affordability, job availability and quality of life.” The OOEA’s Housing Trilemma study found that only eight of the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas rank in the top half of all three categories. None rank among the top 20 in all three categories.

As you might expect, cities that have affordable housing generally rank low in economic vitality or quality of life - or both. It comes as no surprise that places with strong economies and high quality of life are expensive places to live.

Mission Impossible?

Bellingham officials are attempting - again - to solve our so-called housing crisis. The question is: Have they set out on an impossible mission?

Whether or not the mission is impossible may ultimately be determined by how the problem is defined. Having followed this issue locally for more than a decade, I have yet to see our city leaders present a clear definition of the problem.

Typically, the problem of affordable housing is presented as a statistic: those who pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing are considered cost burdened and may have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation and medical care.

As with any statistic, the findings are often misleading. More importantly, defining the problem as a statistic diverts attention away from the actual people who are not able to find suitable housing they can afford.

The Past

Eleven years ago, former City Councilmember Joan Beardsley and I met several times and exchanged more than a dozen emails addressing Bellingham’s housing affordability. Joan was part of a city-sponsored affordable housing committee that was dominated by development interests who were myopically focused on solving the problem by simply building more new housing units.

Although never formalized, the committee’s definition of the problem appeared to be:

1. How can we ensure that a meaningful number of inexpensive units are built in Bellingham?

2. How can we ensure that we have a permanent supply of inexpensive units?

At the time, I strongly recommended to Joan that the committee define the problem in terms of people, not buildings:

1. How many people who have lived and worked in Bellingham for a while are unable to find affordable housing?

2. What is the gap between how much these existing residents can afford and what housing actually costs?

3. How can we help the largest number of existing residents obtain affordable housing, both now and in the future?

Joan and I ultimately developed a solution based on an Affordable Housing Endowment that would provide assistance to existing residents based on a number of factors, including financial need and length of time they had lived in Bellingham. The endowment was to be funded with increased impact fees on new construction and not through higher property taxes. Our solution was rejected by the committee in favor of a focus on construction of new units.

The Present

A few days ago, on Monday August 14, the Bellingham City Council Planning Committee met, yet again, to address Bellingham’s housing crisis. Again, an actual definition of the problem was never provided. And again, the conversation was dominated by development interests and was focused on new housing units.

Here’s the problem: Simply building more units does not guarantee that current Bellingham residents who need affordable housing will actually be housed in these new units. Based on past experience, it’s more likely that non-Bellingham residents will move here from somewhere else and purchase the vast majority of these new units. Consequently, the real problem of housing our existing residents will persist.

The Question

Who are we providing affordable housing for?

Are we attempting to provide affordable housing for every person who may want to move to Bellingham at any point in the future?

Or, should we focus on providing affordable housing for existing residents who already live, work, and have established roots here?

The first
question attempts to deal with an infinite problem that is unsolvable. It is a true “mission impossible” based on the false premise that a city can build its way out of the affordable housing/economy/quality of life trilemma. Have any cities actually accomplished that, or have they simply been chasing their tails?

The second question is finite and potentially solvable.

I suggest we work on the latter.

About Larry Horowitz

Writer • Member since Jan 16, 2008

Comments by Readers

Dick Conoboy

Aug 23, 2017

Larry,

This piece is quite an eye-opener.  What a shame Joan Beardsley is no longer here to provide her counsel to the council. 

This kind of critical thinking is badly needed in the process of working on solutions to affordable housing.  Unfortunately, the affordability issue has been captured by the housing and development industry.  The building industry misrepresents as THE solution yet  more building, an idea twisted to  suggest that opponents of “build and build again” are somehow elitist and non-caring and do not want to solve the problem.

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Larry Horowitz

Aug 24, 2017

I agree Dick, we could really use Joan’s counsel and critical thinking in dealing with the Housing Trilemma.  One thing that’s certain, Bellingham is not going to build its way out of its “affordable housing crisis.”  

For those interested, here’s the link to THE HOUSING TRILEMMA article on the Oregon.gov website:

https://oregoneconomicanalysis.com/2016/06/08/the-housing-trilemma/

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Paul Schissler

Sep 25, 2017

Larry,

Thanks for your column.  I’d like to agree with you about the need to clearly define what problem(s) the City is trying to solve.  

I like the Affordable Housing Endowment concept, and I’d like to hear more about how that might work. How to fund it is a separate issue, and I think there may better, less controversial ways to start funding it.

I support putting a focus on existing residents who already work and live here. It’s impossible to  “build our way out of the problem.”  There are already plenty of market-rate homes compared to what we need; it’s the less-than-market-rate homes that are missing.  Rather than expecting new construction to solve the problem, the community needs to convert a large fraction of its exisitng homes into homes that are actually affordable for existing residents. Those of us making  a low wages need affordable choices; currently, there are no affordable options.  

The status quo plans, one could argue, have failed to meet the WA GMA requirement that “makes adequate provisions for existing and projected needs of all economic segments of the community.”

Thanks for helping to raise the level of discussion about why the real estate market fails to offer, voluntarily, anything less expensive than what the market will bear.  NWCitizen is working toward a common language that can demystify the real estate market’s massive market failure.

 

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Dianne Foster

Sep 30, 2017

Thanks Larry,  for this clarification.    Why do you think the Bellingham Tenant’s Union supports the new initiative?  Do you think they are working for developers?   Or they  simply don’t know the history of this issue in Bellingham?

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Larry Horowitz

Sep 30, 2017

Dianne, thanks for reading and adding your voice.  I wish I could answer your question about why the Bellingham Tenant’s Union does what it does, but I choose to focus on what I can do.  Personally, I signed the BTU petition, but I don’t agree with all their stances.  You’d have to ask the BTU, if you could find the right person.

I have aligned myself with the Bellingham Neighborhood Coalition, an alliance of community members working together to ensure that: 

- The vitality and character of established single family neighborhoods are preserved as the city accommodates additional growth and development;

- Bellingham’s six urban villages are targeted for future infill projects; and

- Existing residents and taxpayers are not unfairly burdened with the costs associated with growth and development.

More info about the BNC Mission Statement can be found here:

BNC Mission Statement

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