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The Need to Shift Housing Policy

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[Guest Writer Garrett O’Brien is a lifelong resident of Bellingham and lives with his wife Brittany and their three children in the Birchwood neighborhood. Garrett has worked in the building trades since 1995, has a degree in construction management, and is the president of Volonta Corporation.]

The Seattle Times recently reported a low-magnitude earthquake east of Seattle — the fourth in a series of small quakes affecting the Puget Sound in recent weeks. These events serve as a good reminder of our community’s seismic shifts, but we should remember that our demographics are also shifting with consequences that may prove to be more destructive than the inevitable Cascadia megaquake. An emerging reality is that working-class people cannot afford to live in Bellingham anymore. We are fast becoming an unaffordable and elite enclave nestled in the Pacific Northwest, with rapidly vanishing housing opportunities for most people.

Working as a homebuilder and property developer for twenty years, while watching (and participating in) the displacement of middle-income people by their higher-earning counterparts, it is without pleasure I report that this trend is accelerating.

Musing about my complicity is not without nuance, and I acknowledge my motivations around housing have had conflicting interests at times. I have served as an advocate for free enterprise as a board member of the Building Industry Association, and as an affordable housing advocate on the board of Kulshan Community Land Trust. Further, I served on the Bellingham loan review board for projects seeking funding from the Bellingham Home Fund, as well as serving two terms on the Bellingham Planning Commission. So, it is not without self-reflection that I offer commentary on this issue, but I can say with sincerity that I want Bellingham to be an affordable place to live. Moreover, I believe it is imperative for the health of our community.

Like many complex issues, contradictions are inherent in housing policy, and there are understandable tensions between growth, housing density, environmental stewardship, and neighborhood character. These tensions repeatedly manifest in public discourse and create a regulatory framework that crawls toward uneasy consensus, but ultimately fails to produce enough housing to meet our needs.

Identifying problems without proposing solutions is of little value, so I offer a few ideas, starting with what I believe is past due: the necessity of expanding our Urban Growth Area (UGA) to encompass areas north and northwest of our current boundary. The resistance to expanding our urban footprint is an effort to avoid undesirable urban sprawl, which is valid, but warrants further examination. These areas are already characterized by low-density development, they are not forested, and do not contain productive agricultural land. Other than impacts to wetlands, which are strictly regulated and require mitigation, there is little reason that building a diverse mix of housing types and densities in these areas would classify as sprawl.

In addition to a reasonable expansion of our UGA, our city’s Planning and Community Development department should be more proactively promoting infill within our current city limits. Funds from the voter-approved Home Fund should be used to staff a comprehensive, citywide zoning reform project. It is not that I support a top-down dictate, but rather I believe we need to fund our departments to be able to engage in the necessary work of collaborating with resident stakeholders, and updating neighborhood plans, and identifying appropriate areas for increased density. A successful example to follow would be the collaborative efforts undertaken by the York Neighborhood Association and City to rezone the former Wilson Toyota site to allow for higher density housing. There are many sites in Bellingham that would be appropriate for this exercise, including but not limited to: the city-owned former Clean Green property, the underdeveloped industrial lands adjacent to Bellingham Cold Storage, and perhaps proactive planning for what may soon be the former Bellis Fair Mall site. After a thorough public process, some neighborhood plans may find they allow for the construction of duplexes on corner lots — or encourage moderate density town homes along transit routes.

These ideas and more should be considered and worked through in a persistent and determined manner to ensure that we do not allow our housing crisis to escalate further. There is still hope to prevent a full-scale demographic shift—but to realize that hope, our housing policies will need to shift as well.

Comments by Readers

Jill Brown

Jan 05, 2021

Any thoughts on the unused land/buildings that are the St Luke’s campus?  Also how we are expecting to have huge growth in our area but we only have one hospital?  The certificate of need laws that are currently on the states books need to be looked at.  

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Garrett O’Brien

Jan 06, 2021

Thank you for your comment, Jill.

I should clarify that I don’t expect our future population growth to exceed historical trends, which I believe averages out at just below 2% a year. I do however, anticipate housing prices will continue to rise at disproportionately high rates compared to incomes if we don’t create more housing supply.

You bring up a good point regarding the need for health care services to support a growing population, and I hesitate to comment further on the certificate of needs laws due to my lack of knowledge in the health care field.

The underutilization of the former St. Luke’s campus illustrates an important maxim; public policy creates incentives and constraints both intended and unintended. For example, the intent of providing tax-exempt status to non-profit hospitals is financial incentive for them to care for those who cannot afford it. This is good policy but creates unintended constraints to repurpose the property or sell it due to the artificially low carrying cost (i.e. no property tax on a property valued at over seven million dollars).

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Wynne Lee

Jan 07, 2021

Before we expand the UGA - again! - what about repurposing of empty big box stores for modest housing (way better short term housing for homeless than tents or trendy tiny houses)? What about requiring EVERY new apartment complex  - and maybe some already in existence - to include a percentage of affordable (to those with below median income) simple units, with GUARANTEED  rent levels tied to income? What about allowing more trailer parks, aka affordable housing in days past, maybe in empty big box parking lots?  What about requiring new business buildings to always have a top floor with apartments?

I’ve been listening to whining and whinging from developers that such ideas are too unprofitable (for their liking) and real estate businesses say No One would buy or even rent such places but… gee, if they were affordable for workers (many ‘essential workers’, as we know now)...  Well, let’s just say—try it. We know for sure that what we’ve been doing for years, with the same old/same old rationalizations is a Big Fail, leading precisely to today’s problems.

We can’t solve our limited housing problem with Biz as Usual thinking. Actually, public funding of 90% child care costs, or truly affordable universal health care would go a looong way to solving the housing affordability problems while enabling continued high profitability in the development/real estate sectors. Reduce currently unconscionable high essential daily living expenses would free up $ for more upscale, or any, housing options for many people.

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Garrett O’Brien

Jan 08, 2021

Thank-you, Wynne. You raise several other topics regarding living expenses and how they correlate to the cost of living that are important. Considering the scope of my article and experience — I would like to reply to a few specific points.

You raise a good point about the need to allow more manufactured housing — which, historically, has been an affordable housing type for many people. Unfortunately, it is not a lack of demand for manufactured housing that prevents adequate supply, but rather an abundance of regulatory constraints. These constraints make it challenging to accommodate manufactured housing, for example, outright zoning exclusion, building codes (both wind and seismic), and strict energy codes. These codes have benefits — but carry the cost of preventing manufactured housing to be built. Dialogue such as this is what I would hope for in the comprehensive zoning reform project I describe in my article.

You mention affordable apartment requirements and guaranteed rent levels, which can be characterized broadly as price controls. Rent control is a good example (and misleading term) that is frequently marketed as a favorable policy but inevitably produces negative results. History has shown us that rent control leads to perverse incentives that adversely impact people and the housing market. The cost of keeping a percentage of units affordable gets redistributed to the other building units — making them artificially more expensive and leaving nowhere for the folks in the middle to live. Incentives to maintain and repair buildings go down, which leads to unsatisfactory living conditions. Turnover is low, which creates a shortage over time.

Repurposing empty box stores would be a great idea. However, they are privately owned properties, which the public does not control. There are large buildings in our downtown core that have been empty for years — and the city’s redevelopment proposals to the respective private owners have not materialized. I think we would be most effective by focusing on public policy within the public realm.

You are correct that business-as-usual will not solve our housing crisis. To be effective, we should approach solutions within our existing framework of; private property rights, zoning laws, and free markets. 

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