[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.]
Recently, I was reminded of a trip my wife and I took to the subdued coastal town of Santa Barbara, California. Struck by the similarities to Bellingham, I wrote an article in NW Citizen cautioning, “…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."
I was and remain concerned about housing affordability for a couple of reasons. First, I love living in Bellingham and hope many people can share the experience. Second, when working people cannot afford housing, everyone is worse off.
The relationship between working wages and the cost of housing is a critical measure for a healthy housing market. This metric was pushing the limits of a healthy range in 2017, so it was the last year I purchased development property in Bellingham. At that time, house prices were roughly six times the average annual income of a Bellingham household. Since 2017 working people in Bellingham experienced a 20% increase in wages, which failed to keep pace with a staggering 60% growth in home prices. If this trend continues, Bellingham will be a wonderful place to live if you have a lot of money. For everyone else, there will be difficult tradeoffs.
While in Santa Barbara, a conversation with an Uber driver imparted a prescient warning. As a single dad, working full-time managing a restaurant and driving for Uber on nights and weekends, his seventy-hour work week afforded him a rented house near his daughter's school. To help offset his monthly rent of $5,000, he sub-leased a room to a coworker.
Curious about what he liked to do for recreation, I imagined something phenomenal, perhaps early morning surfing with his daughter before school. I had to ask. His response was both touching and tragic. He told me that on the occasions he took time off work, he liked to take his daughter to the foothills of the Santa Ynez mountains to see the meadows of wildflowers.
My thoughts turned to Thoreau’s account of the farmer endeavoring to solve the problem of livelihood using a formula more complicated than the problem itself. Enjoying wildflowers with your daughter should not require struggling in overpriced housing markets such as Santa Barbara or Bellingham.
We need renewed vigor in public debate about the importance of housing policy and its impact on our economic well-being. Without it, Bellingham risks losing workforce talent because it will no longer be worth the price of admission.
If Bellingham is to be a place for all to thrive, we need to stop defending existing conditions and start discovering new possibilities.