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Myths Around Affordable Housing in Bellingham

By On
• In Bellingham,

Nothing less than a land grab has taken place in Bellingham that the city has failed to acknowledge as among the principal causes of unaffordability. More than half the population rents property owned by someone else. The panoply of causes involves WWU, greedy landlords, rentiers and real estate investors. As a consequence, the city has helped, through either design or ignorance, to support a divisive attack on individual, small property owners as the culprits, as the NIMBYs. [Not In My Backyard]

Our officials now embrace corollaries of “gig” economy solutions such as zoning changes to permit detached accessory dwelling units for rent, and multi-family housing types in single family (SF) zoned areas – bulldoze an existing home, build a triplex, live in one and rent the other two. Instant rentier! Charge the maximum rent! The icing on the cake is the non-enforcement of city codes on vacation rentals allowing hundreds of dwelling units to be taken out of the market for the convenience of travelers and to the detriment of our permanent population. Vacation rental owners run laughing to the bank without paying business taxes, without procuring a business license and without undergoing basic safety and health inspections.

Nobody can explain how affordability of dwelling units, especially for present residents, will be guaranteed under any current city plans.

At no time is the city pointing up the hill to WWU, the institution that since 1970 has brought to this city thousands of students without the least bit of consideration of what that might do to the housing stock. Nor does the city look to the landlords who have gobbled up much of the single family housing (one landlord owns nearly 40 SF homes in the SF zoned areas of the York Neighborhood alone), rendering purchase by families impossible, while obscenely jacking up the rents for decades. Nor does anyone look to the realtors who are complicit in this wealth transfer. Welcome to the rentier economy. Nonetheless a scapegoat must be found, enter the “privileged” homeowner.

Homeowners and others who oppose this ineffective and often counterproductive floundering, presented to “solve” the problem, become the whipping boys (or girls) and are accused of negativism, elitism, racism or worse… being middle class who look down their noses as they bask in an economic security that, ironically, only really exists for the uber-rich. Landlords (the rentier class) gouge tenants with impunity and developers are left off the hook or given sweet deals in reduced impact fees or taxes to prop up profits when they deign to provide questionably and marginally “affordable” units. We see that happening now with this folderol around cures for housing unaffordability in which the Emperor of Affordability struts just as naked before us while all applaud his gorgeous wardrobe of zoning garments that will not fit. We cannot build or zone our way out of this problem and to tell the opposite to the public sets up false expectations and promotes a cynicism that will certainly backfire on the council and administration.

Consequently, part of Bellingham’s solution, like that of many other cities, is to move to or promote obliquely the “sharing economy” which is nothing more than a gussied-up version of the “gig economy” in which everything is for sale or rent on an individual basis for the sake of producing affordability. Rent your car, rent your house, rent your garage, rent your lawn, rent your tools, rent your body, sell your hair, sell your organs, sell your blood, sell advertising space on all surfaces you control, sell your soul if you can make a miserable buck. Sell, rent, rent, sell, ad infinitum et ad nauseam in the name of creating affordability. You and everything around you are nothing more than profit centers and, by the way, to hell with the commons, treasures which are also sold by governments and privatized for one-time profits to be used, abused, polluted, destroyed and spit out as filthy junk whose disposal will be paid for by you. And if you fail at all those wonderful opportunities to succeed as a profit center and provide affordable whatever to the masses, it is your own fault. You are on your own among the rentiers’ version of the wild west. And for those who cannot survive on the risibly called minimum wage, that is not of this government’s concern.

About Dick Conoboy

Writer • Member since Jan 26, 2008

Dick Conoboy is a recovering civilian federal worker and military officer who was offered and accepted an all-expense paid, one year trip to Vietnam in 1968. He is a former Army [...]

Comments by Readers

Dianne Foster

Sep 30, 2017

You hit it on the head,  Dick!  Best book on the subject - Griftopia by Matt Taibbi; about the Wall St grifters that own and rent our country,  privatizing everything (including Chicago’s parking meters - so locals cannot have a street fair without paying the “owners”.    We can thank both political parties for this - triangulating Dems along with Repugs.

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Dick Conoboy

Sep 30, 2017

Dianne - thanks for bringing up Taibbi.  I have been reading his stuff for years now.  Griftopia is an excellent book on the topic.  If our readers here want to know more about Griftopia there is a sampler here.

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Michael Chiavario

Sep 30, 2017

Dianne  Foster is correct when she complains about grifters running the economy. I urge caution in blanketly blaming the Dems along with the Repubs.  While there are certainly Democratic politicians who are part of Griftopia, there are many others who are truly progressive.

Party politics is the core reality of our political system. We will not turn this political  ship around without electing progressive people to office at every level. Doing that requires political organization that the Democratic party has in place. Progressive activists are in place at every level of that Party and they need more help to make the Party truly serve the needs of the people. They do not need to be burdened with the message that the Party should be abandoned as just another cog in the wheel of a bad system.  I think that the way forward is to criticize the failings of the Dems while joining them to make it a truly People’s Party.

Dick is right that the system that allows speculation in residential estate is at the core of the affordability problem. I think that he might be surprised to learn that some city officials agree with this assessment.

The problem with solving this underlying systemic problem is constitutional at the federal and state level. City officials are limited in what tools they have to use to create equityin a system that has private residential property ownership and it’s attendent ‘rights’  at it’s core. 

Answers like housing trusts, rent controls, limits on ownership of multiple units for profit, will not happen without legislative changes at every level. While it may appear to some that city officials who are trying to find some solutions to stop sprawl and increase affordability are scapegoating single family homemowners, I think that is not the case. More communication and less blaming between neighborhoods and officials about fixing the speculation problem while using the limited tools at hand at present is needed.   

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Geoff Middaugh

Sep 30, 2017

Outstanding article, Dick.  At the last meeting (September 21), when the Planning Commission questioned the staff as to why they proposed that short term rentals (STRs) not be allowed in controversial detached ADU’s in single family zones, Rick Sepler pushed back and explained that allowing STR’s in detached ADU’s goes against the COB’s plans to increase housing supply and provide for more affordability.   Allowing STRs takes affordable housing stock off the market for people who need it.   Right now there are about 600 STRs, operating within the COB, not paying taxes, and taking away affordable housing stock.   Then the commission COMPLETELY ignored him, the staff, the public comments, and neigbhorhoods, under the guise that people should be allowed to do whatever they want with their homes, and it’s none of the neighbors business.   Really?   Why do we even have a planning commission?  

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Dick Conoboy

Sep 30, 2017

Geoff,

Aha!  Who knows what plans lay in place for the planning commission.  MNAC already was talked into planning and zoning issue sepuku.  Be on the lookout for planning commissioners and staff showing up in kimonos.

On the other hand, already the PC recommendations are not binding.  The PC may just serve as another city element over which the public must jump and exhaust itself in the process.  The PC does take the initial flak allowing the council to appear exert its wisdom and  to come to the rescue of the abused and spent citizenry. 

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Dick Conoboy

Sep 30, 2017

Michael,

Thanks for your rather long comment.  I hate to turn this thread into another discussion of party politics, however, these politics are inextricably woven throughout the Democratic Party so that it is difficult to separate the issues from the political sclerosis.  I wrote about that last February and you can read my views here.

“[H]ousing trusts, rent controls, limits on ownership of multiple units for profit” may help somewhat but affordable housing will not happen unless the “state” does it and runs it.  Developers are not into charity and provision of incentives to builders just moves the impact cost to the citizens.  So if they are going to pay anyhow, why give the money to the private sector?

 

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Larry Horowitz

Sep 30, 2017

Nobody can explain how affordability of dwelling units, especially for present residents, will be guaranteed under any current city plans.”

As I’ve written elsewhere, any solution that lacks a clearly defined problem is doomed to failure. Given the lack of specifics, how will anyone – including city officials – know if their solution is successful? What are the metrics used to define the problem and determine success? Who is the city trying to assist?

How can city officials expect residents to continue to support these boondoggles when they absolutely fail to define the problem they hope to solve?

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Michael Chiavario

Sep 30, 2017

Dick, I completely agree with your points on housing. I  read your referenced piece when you published it in February and commented at the time. Looks like our positions have respectively not changed on the merits of participating in the Democratic Party. At the risk of beating a dead horse, I will say again that our only hope to elect a progressive majority is through gerass roots efforts in the Democratic party. If you have another way that you think we can remake Congress and the State legislature to reflect the peoples interests that is practically doable, I would love to hear it. If you convince I will jump on board. Keep on thinking and speaking out, Dick. Citizen advocates like you are the lifeblood of democracy.

 

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