Another big housing development has been proposed for Bellingham. The good news is that this one is in the Samish Way Urban Village. The bad news is that like the 70-plus unit developments in process in Fairhaven and across from the Bellwether, all units in all three developments are “market priced.” In other words, no affordable units are being added to over 300 privately developed units, all built in high-density zoned areas
So, let’s revisit the conviction that simply increasing density will solve the housing shortage and cause social, economic and racial integration in all neighborhoods. While all levels of housing are needed, the track record with private development shows not only the complexity of housing economics but that the obstacles and challenges to build affordable units extend beyond zoning. Just look at all the building projects in Bellingham, particularly North Bellingham, and you’ll see a sameness to the structures, be they apartments or townhouses or single-family developments. Sameness is efficient, cost effective and profitable.
There are many causes of our housing situation, including the Great Recession when construction and turnover of “starter” homes virtually stopped. Also, the federal government got out of warehousing people in both “mental institutions” and housing projects, aka slums, without replacing either the beds or mental health services. Bellingham’s housing needs are further magnified by a large, transient student population that competes for affordable housing with permanent residents, while at the same time, some of our elders hold onto homes only because “aging in place” options don’t exist.
Then there is the housing-wage gap, a problem shared across the country. In Bellingham, 16% of the homeless have jobs but still can’t afford a place to live. And many areas of the country have much lower housing costs, such as Grand Rapids’ where the median home value is $164,500 vs. Bellingham’s $443,000. Nor is our growth the cause of the wage gap. Maine has an affordability shortage like we do, but our population grew 11.4% vs. the entire state of Maine, at 0.8% since 2010.
The causes of a lack of affordable housing are many and complicated. So are the solutions, and I applaud Kulshan Community Land Trust, Habitat for Humanity and the City of Bellingham for their accomplishments thus far in creating affordable housing. But wouldn’t it be more effective if private builders were also part of the solution? The city has looked at requiring every new development to include a percentage of affordable units, but hasn’t yet found either the sweet spot to keep builders building and/or the political will to try.
Let’s try again, with the goal of high-density urban villages requiring affordable units, family sized units, and aging-in-place options in every development. Yes, the feds, state and non-profits have a role, but for-profit developers do a significant amount of the building, and many of them live in our community. Let’s get them involved to find the right carrots and sticks to ensure that affordable units are part of their plans.