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Don’t Confuse Housing Affordability with Housing Choice

We have an opportunity to assure affordable housing in Bellingham; let’s not squander it!

We have an opportunity to assure affordable housing in Bellingham; let’s not squander it!

[Our Guest Writer, Scott Jones, is a resident of Bellingham since 2010, from Eugene, Oregon. A father and an entrepreneur, Scott advocates for Hunger Relief and Affordable Housing through non-profits and solid government policy.]

Confusion persists as we continue to grapple with the housing crisis in Bellingham. Arguments for affordable housing end in policies that only help housing choice. These are two very different issues that often get mixed together. Yet in the end, for those at the lower rungs of the economic ladder who truly need affordable housing, it is dangerous to conflate them.  

Housing choice is being able to choose the type of home you want in the area of town you want. This is a quality of life issue and an important one, but not a right nor a requirement to live safely. 

Affordable housing is being able to rent or buy a home that you can afford for less than 30% of your income. This allows for a ratio of expenditure that balances life sustaining needs such as housing, food, medicine, transportation, insurance, etc.

To flip the issue on its head, in Bellingham, proponents of Yes In My Backyard (YIMBY), righteously assert they are in the right and are helping the world. In the end, the policies they fight for help the middle class live in the neighborhoods of their choice. 

However, the end result does not create affordable housing, even though they pull at the heart strings of the community because they promise the policies they advocate are for the poor. 

These good-intentioned residents don't follow-up to see the unintended consequences of their arguments. The animosity created and the confusion within the community breaks down dialogue and stops residents from continuing to fight for affordable housing.  

Residents either think the solution is complete, or they are fed up with the negativity and walk away. Is that the intention of leaders vying for housing choice veiled as affordable housing? I hope not, because that would border on evil. 

We must separate the problems of housing choice and affordable housing. They are both real, but more often than not they affect two disparate populations. The solutions are also very different. 

Housing choice is mostly a zoning issue, allowing more diverse types of housing in more places. This increase in inventory is one of the arguments that gets lost in translation. An example of choice vs. affordability is the local Detached Accessory Dwelling Unit (DADU). An upwelling of support is given to an increase in inventory, but these not so tiny houses in backyards can only be afforded by the middle class because of the cost to build them, and the usual quality level that the home owner choses to build at (for higher rental profits). 

After DADUs were legalized in single family zoning areas in Bellingham in 2018, under the guise of affordable housing, the proponents who fought vehemently for the zoning change, went quiet on the issue. As if the problem were solved. DADUs started going up and housing choice increased. 

Affordable housing did not. The advocates for the DADUs said that every new housing unit mattered to help the affordability crisis. It might have, if the quantity of new housing units were great enough to make an impact on the market. Unfortunately, the quantity was minuscule compared to the number needed to make a dent. 

How many DADU’s were approved? 154. 

Were there no other policies that could have been fought for that would have actually helped? Did these housing hawks who so loudly screamed “affordable housing!” from their nests think the problem was solved? Or that there was no more to be done? It seems so, or in the end they just didn’t really care about affordable housing in the first place. 

Since then, two very important possibilities have come to light that could actually have an effect on affordable housing, i.e. housing for those who without it, will become homeless. That is what we should fight for, affordable housing. The first opportunity is Intended Density in MultiFamily Zoned areas. Actually having multifamily development in multifamily zoned areas is a slam dunk, but for decades it was not defined nor enforced by City Hall.  

Thousands of possible units were made impossible by building single family homes in multifamily zoned areas. A moratorium on building is now allowing a pause and a policy change that will fix this issue. Where were the housing choice advocates back then who were screaming for affordable housing? We applaud the city for taking this long forgotten step, but it has created challenges for those who bought into those ‘single family’ multifamily zoned neighborhoods. But that’s another article. 

The second opportunity, which I have been asking the planning director about for years, is to require developers to set aside a portion of every new development for permanent affordable housing. This is a common, standard practice, but one that the city has refused to implement. The response has always been that if we required this, developers would not build.  

That is now no longer the case. In one of the last acts of Planning Director Rick Sepler’s career, he finally agreed this requirement is possible. It is finally time for the false rhetoric to stop. It is time for those in the top tiers of local leadership to either lead the way, or step down.

Comments by Readers

Geoff Middaugh

Oct 14, 2021

Excellent article, and clarification.  Thank you.  I hope the council is listening…


Satpal Sidhu

Oct 14, 2021

Thanks Scott for writing this piece. Of course unincoporated areas need little different approach than the Cities. I fully agree that ALL Cities and County should work with developer / builder community (who are willing to talk) that we develop policies to that every new development proposal should have certain minimum element of “permanently affordable housing”. I firmly belive this is very much doable and can work economically also.


Scott Jones

Oct 14, 2021

For those who want to hear Rick Seplar’s recognition that its time to require Affordable Housing with new developments, they can see it here.

3:17:00 for several minutes after.


Michael Chiavario

Oct 14, 2021

 I agree with your last point, Scott ,about minimum requirements for permanently affordable homes in new developments.

I don’t agree that it was necessary or accurate for you to malign ADU advocates in your selective memory of the 2018 ADU fight. There were two main pushes in the struggle for the ordinance: affordability AND density. The owner occupancy requirement was included in the ordinance to prevent absentee landlords from exploiting the density gift of a legal ADU from becoming a cash cow for them that would push up prices for homes in the neighborhoods. As one of those who helped push for the current ADU ordinance, I never thought that it would make ADU’s overall affordable without concomitant incentives, fee and permit reductions, and other assistance to create affordable ADU’s.I  knew that it was just a first step.

In your section on Intended density in Multi-family homes you ask, “Where were the housing choice advocates back then?” as if we had dissapppeared and did not support the moratorium. Your piece reads as if you are the only moral actor in home affordability in town. Not only do I and other affrodability advocates support the moratorium, but many of us support more housing choice as well as much more permanent home affordability in every neighborhood - not just a low income high rise complex on the edge of single detached neighborhood zones, but scattered multi home buildings of affordable homes throughout the city.

I don’t know a single housing affordability advocate who ‘went quiet’, as you allege, after the ADU ordinance went in to effect. I certainly didn’t. I have been pushing to revise the ADU ordinance from the time that it originally passed. That revision proess is now in the stage of Planning Commission review. Anyone can participate in that process. Be assured that many housing advocates are and will participate in that process and other local and state efforts to create enough permanently affordable homes in EVERY NEIGHBORHOOD to serve the actual needs of our community. We need to eliminate policies and practices that only allow working class and poor folks to live in certain parts of town(or be pushed out of town altogether). That will ultimately require eliminating at least half of the market based private equity homes and turn them into community equity homes like Trust homes and Co-ops.



Scott Jones

Oct 14, 2021

Lets requote Michael Chiavario’s last sentance.
“That will ultimately require eliminating at least half of the market based private equity homes and turn them into community equity homes like Trust homes and Co-ops.


Michael Chiavario

Oct 14, 2021

Yes, As Scott Jones correctly pointed out in his article, when someone pays more than 30% of their household income for rent or mortgage, they are considered to be cost burdened by an ‘unaffordable’ monthly payment. So since over 50% of Bellingham residents fall into this category, we wouldn’t want the needed 50% of our housing stock to fall into the affordable category because, well, OMG!

People from out of town have a right to bring their $ to town and continue to inflate the cost of homes and make it increasingly unnaffordable for working people to live here, because if we tried to remove those ‘investment opportunities’ that would just be, OMG!

We need to just accept that the current market system of housing is based on historical and current class and racial oppression because God must have made it that way for some reason and if we tried to change that, well, OMG!

We definitely shouldn’t look at examples of more equitable systems of housing that exist in places like Vienna, Zurich, England, Germany, Holland, Denmark because we don’t do that here in America, because, well, we’re Americans. OMG.


Scott Jones

Oct 15, 2021

Michael,  you continue to prove my point that you focus on housing choice for the middle class. Your problems described are just that, and as mentioned a problem in it’s own right.

It is not the problem of affordable housing for those most in need, though. Once these two are separated, you will find a community supporting both. 

If you continue to fight for them as one, no solutions will come.


Michael Chiavario

Oct 15, 2021

Scott I believe that I clearly outlined my solution for workforce(not Middle class)housing succinctly in my quote that you entered above followed by your snarky ‘OMG!’ I enjoyed being snarky back at you.

Housing for those most in need? You deduce that I am fighting for them as one? Yes, I guess I am. Long term solution to the problem of housing unaffordability will only be achieved when our system of commodified private equity market housing is largely replaced by community equity home ownership and permanently affordable rentals and subsidized homes for the very poor. I choose to focus most of my work on permanently affordable community equity ownership through the Kulshan Comunity Land Trust. I also participate the Whatcom Housing Alliance and communicate with local elected representatives and participate in some Planning Comission and Port meetings. I also helped build the tiny home Unity village in Fairhaven that houses very poor folks during their transition to more permanent homes - I find it a sad testament of our corrupt system that we relegate people to tiny boxes next to a stinky sewage plant, but it is much better than a tent. I am also building an affordable apartment(ADU) in my own home - I am able to make it affordable because I am doing most of the labor myself with the help of volunteers.

I find that there is lots of community support for both tiny homes, subsidized housing, and land trust homes, so I don’t understand what you mean when you imply that my approach will not get ‘community support’. Might it be that you really mean YOUR support? Might you be concerned that affordable housing is built in multi zones and not your comfortable middle class neighborhood of single detached homes? If I am wrong about these suppositions, please let me and the readers know. I wouldn’t want to mischaracterize your intentions or positions in the same way that you mischaracterized the positions and intentions of local housing activists in your article above.


Amanda Fleming

Oct 17, 2021

Hey Michael, you’re sure going to a lot of trouble to advance your theory that Bellingham needs to adopt a socialist economy so that everybody who wants to live here can live here, or in other words, “That will ultimately require eliminating at least half of the market based private equity homes and turn them into community equity homes like Trust homes and Co-ops.” OMG indeed.  OMG what have you been smoking that would lead you to believe that anyone not currently in their freshman year at Western would buy into that?  I guess issues of legality and constitutionality pale in contrast to ensuring that absolutely everyone who wants to live here can live here.

Here is a link to an interesting video, which makes the point that when people find housing costs and cost of living to be prohibitive, most of them just move.

But if you want to pursue that socialist utopia thing, by all means go ahead.  It’s a free country, after all 😊



Michael Chiavario

Oct 18, 2021

Amanda Fleming,

“Just move”.

I guess that I should tell that solution to my grandaughter who has worked as a CNA for 9 years(now in nursing school) and endured the horrors of Covid in the long term care setting. She would love to be able to find a place to rent or buy in Bellingham, but, at market prices today, that is impossible for her. I don’t want to tell people of her character and skills that they should ‘just move’.

Perhaps you thought that by using the term ‘eliminating’ in reference to the current stock of market rate homes in Bellingham, that I meant some kind of government appropiation of property. I did not. We will need to find funds to buy land and homes, recruit current owners of market equity homes to convert them to community equity homes, recruit folks to will their homes to trusts and co-ops, change permitting rules to require permanent affrodability of a percentage of new homes, and use other means to make the transition to permanent affordability.

I also read into your coment that you may have a fear that I want to incentivise people to move here because homes will be affordable. One of the land trusts in town, Kulshan Comunity Land Trust, has a requirement of at least one year of residency to qualify for buying a Trust home. As it is now, the large majority of folks moving to Bellingham are pretty well heeled. They inadvertently, without ill intent, push up home prices even more when they bring their cash offers in bidding wars to buy homes that may approach one million dollars today, while those same homes were around 200 to 300  thousand twenty-five years ago or less.

Yes, America is supposed to be a ‘free’ country. Therefore I want people who grew up in Bellingham to be able to choose to stay here near their families and the town that they love.


Amanda Fleming

Oct 18, 2021

The argument that we need to do something or other so that “our children can stay here” is an old one, but usually one that is used by developers who claim that their projects, will “provide jobs,” (no matter how low paid).  I knew that the concept of moving away from a place you cannot afford, or not moving there to begin with, would provoke cries of injustice, but people do it all the time.  People move for jobs, for housing, for quality of life, to join a partner, to be closer to family, to retire, etc.  They pretty much all make those decisions with their finances in mind.

I don’t disagree with requiring a percentage of new build to be “affordable” but realistically how much housing will that provide, and how do we define affordable?  As far as property seizure, where exactly do you plan on “finding funds to buy land and homes,” other than from the government (meaning from other people who may not want to give it to you)?  How can regulations be changed to resemble “more equitable systems of housing that exist in places like Vienna, Zurich, Englan, Germany, Holland, Denmark” without a change in governmental principles, as well as appropriation of property?  To implement your philosophies, you would first need to start at the top and change the federal government and the constitution.

The concept of a “free country” is that the government does not control what people do or say.  It most assuredly does not mean the government is supposed to control other people in order to give you whatever you want.  I am heartsick at what has happened in Bellingham over the last 30 or so years when people have been crowding in here at increasingly alarming rates.  I wish we could stop this.  I would love to stop it.  But, legally and constitutionally, we can’t. 

Whenever I encounter the philosophies that you espouse, I am irresistably reminded of a scene from the movie “Dr. Zhivago” where Zhivago comes home from serving as a battlefield physician during the revolution, and finds 50 or so people living in his house.  The chairman of the “resident’s committee” yells at him that “There was living space for 13 families in this one house!” I can imagine your cohorts telling people “There was space on this one lot for 5 ADU’s!  We start construction today!”






Alex McLean

Oct 18, 2021

America’s unique brand of predatory capitalism, especially in regard to housing, is really the core issue here.

If Scott Jones wanted to attempt a more holistic analysis of our conundrums he might also note that land and property hoarders have created a default barrier between the Haves and Haves Nots—the net worth of a homeowner is estimated to be over $250,000 on average, while America’s renters hover above the abyss with only $6,000. Nothing about our rapaciously greedy “system” will allow the Have Nots traction for the safety of stable housing or, especially, for upward mobility.

Jones magically fails to observe that the 154 new DADUS likely implies 154 new landlords. Most certainly some of them are scumbags who only aim to profit off their venture—some of these DADUs, for example, are eventually going to be managed or owned by Windermere or Hammer Properties because the “owner occupied” bit of the ordinance isn’t really enforceable.

A lot of them, I’d wager, are owned and managed by the homeowner who can be a lot more generous and less evil than the “market rate” vultures who currently run this nation’s housing stock: They can rent to artists or friends struggling to stay sober, people with dogs, students, offspring or parents at a rate of their choosing. Go ahead and look up how much it costs to put Mom and Dad in a “nursing home.” If you can find a place in Bellingham for less than $5,000 per-month, reserve their spot now.

DADUs thus provided freedom and financial flexibility for both the “Housing Choice” and the “Housing Affordability” metrics. It was always an asinine NIMBY/YIMBY battle anyways since, as Jones knows, there were no regulations barring ADUs getting added to homes—a second floor or a bolted-on canker of blight added by a rental consortium—but only prohibition of this one type of Detatched adorable cottage that, in his mind, was going to be the ruin of civilization.

We’ve added 300 new “units” of housing to 32nd Street in the past three years. The three towers, and four ass-ugly rental homes, represent “Housing Choice,” I guess. But only if you want to live next to the roar of I-5 on a street with missing sidewalks, no bike lanes, a complete firewall of pedestrian access to the nearby Sehome Mall, in a neighborhood with a failing Level of Service for public parks.

Are any of these “units” affordable? I doubt it.

And they never will be, either—rents will just climb to meet the “market rate” and, somewhere, a millionaire is polishing their new yacht.

A more honest exploration of the issue would ask why rental consortiums—Windermere, Hammer, Hanson Brothers, etc.—are allowed to own as much as half of the single family homes in some neighborhoods.

A more honest analysis might also ask if the so-called “student housing” model of stack-n-pack tenements is really doing anything to help our society: They charge $900 per-BEDROOM, then siphon the cash out of the community to Houston or Chicago or wherever the hedge fund quants are residing during any financial quarter.

We aren’t regulating them. At all. But, by all means, let’s rehash the existential menace of a cottage DADU potentially “ruining” a rich neighborhood ... because that’s VERY important!

I thought Tim Johnson did a better job of this.

The “missing middle” is more about the gap between what the public is getting from developers and predatory housing investment schemes than it is about affordability or choice.

We’re getting screwed here, and the Douglas Avenue vacation—giving away a public trail so a private developer can build more market rate shitbox rentals to get rich off of—is a better example than continuing to yowl about stupid, utterly insignificant, DADUs.


Paul K Schissler

Oct 18, 2021

Michael Chiavario and I and others are not deterred by OMGs from pointing out that, somehow, half of all homes need to become more affordable than market price because over half of us who live and work here can no longer afford the market price and have no affordable choices. No one knows yet how we’ll arrive at that fifty:fifty proposition, but that need not deter us from trying to figure it out.  In the fifty:fifty proposition, fifty percent of all homes can be reserved for investors and owner-occupants who have profit motivations and can afford market price; the other half of all homes can be reserved for those of us who cannot afford the investors’ market price. I think Whatcom can get to the fifty:fifty in fifty years or less, although the path from here to there is not yet clear.

As I read Scott Jones and Amanda Flemings comments above, I was reminded of an old saying about the three stages before acceptance, sometimes stated as, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” 




Ginger Decker

Oct 20, 2021

Great clarification Scott, thanks!


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