The Flip Side of Housing Affordability
We need to pay more attention to the wage side of housing affordability.
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It may come as a shock to some, but until April 2005, I had never attended a city- or developer- sponsored meeting, nor had I ever been inside Bellingham’s City Hall or any other city hall where I’ve lived. Keep in mind, I’ve been a homeowner since 1984, so that's 21 years of absolute inactivity.
Since that fateful day in 2005, I have found myself to be a lone voice in the wilderness all too often. Who has the time and energy to be active in civic affairs or to scale the steep learning curve - like where City Hall is even located or what a planning commission is? Certainly, no one’s paying me no ‘big bucks’ to do it. Without the financial incentive to get involved, why bother? Right?
Given the disincentive to get involved, it’s really no surprise I often find myself alone in what I know to be true.
Years ago, I stumbled across a quote by Mohandas (aka Mahatma) Gandhi that really spoke to me:
“Even if I am a minority of one, the truth is the truth.”
I have found, as fortune would have it, that the truth has magnetic properties, and before you know it you are no longer a minority.
A case in point: I have recently been told by an elected official that what I know to be true about Bellingham’s ability to accommodate population growth “is not likely to gain great traction in Bellingham, or anywhere in Whatcom County, because it's considered a pretty radical concept.”
With that in mind, I’d like to:
First, the truth:
* There is enough developable land in Bellingham and its urban growth area (UGA) to accommodate the city’s projected population growth.
* There is no pressure or need to expand the UGA.
* There is no pressure or need to increase the zoning density in established residential neighborhoods.
How do I know this? Because, in 2005, a member of the Whatcom County Planning Commission asked me to take a look at the Bellingham Land Supply Analysis (LSA). And I did.
What I found was a number of items requiring adjustment, many of which the city agreed to correct. By doing so, the paradigm in which it appeared the city’s land supply was not sufficient began to change. All of a sudden, the city realized that its land supply may actually be adequate after all. Unfortunately, recommendations to expand the UGA and increase zoning densities had already been adopted and set in motion, so this paradigm shift was completely unwelcome.
When I continued to find items needing adjustment, I was told the city would no longer adopt any of my recommendations. At the time, the most glaring error involved the amount of developable land the city planned to acquire to expand its park system. The number of acres used in the LSA and Land Use Chapter differed from, and was inconsistent with, the number of acres called for in both the Park Plan and the Capital Facilities Chapter of the city’s Comprehensive (Comp) Plan. It was clear that the LSA was flawed, but the city refused to either acknowledge or correct the error.
To make a long story short, four of us filed a petition with the Growth Management Hearings Board (GMHB) claiming that the city’s Comp Plan contained an internal inconsistency which violated the Growth Management Act (GMA). The GMHB agreed but ultimately allowed the city to retain the error in the LSA and Land Use Chapter as long as the error was used consistently in the Park Plan and Capital Facilities Chapter. The error itself was glaring because it resulted in a $100 million budget shortfall when comparing the cost of land the city said it would purchase with the funds available to do so.
Two years later, in 2008, the city finally corrected the error when the newly adopted Park Plan reduced the amount of parkland the city agreed (and could afford) to acquire by 1,132 acres.
Of course, in order to comply with the internal consistency requirement of the GMA, the city was then obligated to modify its LSA and Land Use Chapter to reflect the newly adopted Park Plan. Naturally, the city refused to do so, and the initial error remains in the LSA and Land Use Chapter of the Comp Plan to this day.
Since 2006, when the Comp Plan was adopted, the City has added to its UGA – and then annexed - the King Mountain neighborhood. This addition has never been reflected in the city’s LSA.
Additionally, the city has increased the zoning density in a number of locations since the LSA was adopted. None of these capacity increases have been reflected in the LSA.
These three significant capacity-expanding actions have created a new paradigm:
So why is this truth so radical?
By talking with people who attended the various growth forums, I’ve learned that the city long ago presented the community with a false dilemma. Residents were told that the city did not have sufficient land to house its projected population and were offered only those choices that expanded the city’s capacity: build up or out.
The fact is, the city’s land supply is sufficient, and the dilemma presented by the city was false. The city was prescribing treatment for an ailment that simply did not exist. The truth is radical now only because the fiction has been so well established.
Is it not time to finally tell the truth?
So now I turn it over to you, my fellow residents:
Has this truth gained any traction with you?