300+ New Units, Zero Affordability

• Topics: Bellingham,

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.

About Jane Bright

Citizen Journalist • Member since Jan 14, 2020

Currently President of South Hill Neighborhood Association, which is 44% multifamily units, Jane is active in several Whatcom community groups. Following a career as a Human Resources executive for The Gillette [...]

Comments by Readers

Paul K Schissler

Feb 01, 2020

Well said, Jane Bright on Northwest Citizen! What you said cannot be repeated often enough: Simply increasing density by creating, granting, and giving away the “permission to build” to those who already own property here will not solve our housing shortage nor lead to social, economic and racial integration in all neighborhoods. Not unless we add mechanisms that create more affordability than the current, prevailing real estate industry is geared to deliver.

The real estate industry’s numbers prove that our county has way more market-priced homes (apartments are homes, too) than we have people and households who can afford those homes. And we have way too few homes compared to the number of us who need something less expensive than market rate. Over half of us who work here spend an unaffordable amount per month for our home’s rent or mortgage plus basic utilities. (Unaffordable being defined as more than 30 percent of gross income per month)

Rather than expecting zoning changes, city codes, and incentives to somehow convince for-profit businesses and their bankers to change their stripes and offer homes for less than the market will bear, it would be more productive for cities, the county, and the port to concentrate on what it takes to create permanently affordable homes for the widest possible range of incomes among those of us who live and work here.

Here’s where I’d like to see our public agencies and private sector partners working together: Owner occupancy is better than absentee investor ownership. Community land trust affordable homeownership is superior to unaffordable rental tenancy. Home co-op ownership is better than tenants with no ownership interests. Permanently affordable homes are better than temporarily affordable homes. Shared equity is better than no equity shared. Limited equity sharing and a reasonably healthy rate of return are better than hoping for a windfall.

Can we flip the dominant culture that mistakenly believes that homes must always be seen as investments instead of homes being a place to sleep safely at night, ideally at a price you can afford? For at least half of all homes?

I think I might be OK with half of all homes being investments that offer an upside capital gain of whatever the market will bear as long as the other half of all homes (eventually) are permanently affordable for the widest possible range of incomes. About half of us can afford market-priced homes, but the other half of us with incomes less than the median need homes that are less expensive per month than any of the free market homes here.

Can we aim for what we really need? We need fifty percent or more of all homes to be permanently affordable for the half of us who have incomes less than the median. Could happen! Maybe in 50 years or less. Why not Whatcom?


Ryan M. Ferris

Feb 01, 2020

New home buyers are frequently coming from other, higher priced urban areas. If they bring wealth with them, then the market prices will match their demand. But that doesn’t mean local  wages here will rise. On the other hand, there are a lot of coastal CA cities like this: retirees, surfers, students with tourism, health, education, retail as the driving economic industries. You can say we are becoming quite upper middle class.  We could do worse. I used to think lack of well paying careers was a terrible flaw. I am not so sure anymore.  Is gentrification  evil? Is it the best we can do?  Probably no to both.  “Housing equality and affordability”  are goals worth pursuing  however not because we might achieve them but simply because we are better as a community for making the attempt. And that is important.


Satpal Sidhu

Feb 01, 2020

Yes our long term policies ought to reflect the needs of people below the median income today and in future. But such shift in public policy paradigm shift and their impact on the gorund takes decades. We need ideas and solutions for making an impact under 5 years! I am seeking input from all stakeholders in the housing equation to make a difference on the ground. Mayor Seth Fleetwood has suggested a Housing Summit in next few months and some consensus for County and COB and all other cities to engage in short terms solutions / public private partnerships ideas.


Jane Bright

Feb 01, 2020

I am very pleased to see this conversation and thank you all for jumping in. As to County Exec Sidhu’s under 5 year goal, I agree totally. The sooner the better.

For the city of Bellingham, the low hanging fruit is student housing. I’ll write more on this soon, but if the private market has figured out how to make money on student housing, the State should be able to find a way to increase on campus density and build housing that works for today’s students, increases their safety compared to some of the fire traps now in use and help with student and their and their families’ finances. WWU is very proactive in providing students guidance on how to navigate the housing shortage, but I think it would be even better if the State stopped outsourcing student housing to the city and housed them directly. By my calculations, students occupy 7 to 8% of Bellingham’s housing units, mostly at the entry level. More on that later.

I have no idea what low hanging fruit there might be in the county. Anyone? 


Ryan M. Ferris

Feb 02, 2020

I think we should not shy away from direct efforts to provide low and moderate income housing, including:

(1) Subsidized public housing

(2) Rent subsidies

(3) Zoning policies that requires some non-trivial amount of affordable housing as defined by some actually useful household income or wage statistics.

(4) Local rent control  and rent control boards outside of what is not outlawed at the state level (if that is possible).

(5) Vacancy taxes to decrease speculation

We can’t expect our community to overthrow capitalism, real estate speculation or create ‘living wage’ employment. But leaving house and apartent pricing  to the ‘efficiencies of the market’ will probably result in Seattle or Bay Area type housing markets very soon.   Because housing is a significant ‘asset class’ in the world economy, housing markets don’t neccessarily stop rampant unemployment, low wage employment, homelessness, cyclic booms and busts, etc.  I have written a couple of posts on the phenomena of housing vacancy and ‘ghost ownership’ or corporate ownership of property across urban America:


I have verified that we do have substantial out of state (LLC,LP) ownership of property in Bellingham and Whatcom County. Personally, I don’t see how we can provide any counter  to speculation, vacancy, rampant appreciation without the city or county investing in property dedicated to housing and using legislation to influence housing markets. In July, I looked at understanding mean wages and housing prices from Census Data. Obviously, home ownership is more and more out of reach for youth in a county like ours with rapidly appreciating home prices:


It is potentially worrisome that currently we are seeing high prices accompanied by very low interest rates.  We are currently at very low interest rates in a housing recovery that has been strong for some time; some say much longer and stronger than other recoveries. The Census has fourth quarter vacancy (rental and housing) and prices out of as of January 30:

2020: https://www.census.gov/housing/hvs/files/currenthvspress.pdf  


Deputy Chief Economist at Freddie Mac Len Kiefer produces a lot of interesting graphics from FRED and Census data on housing trends.  For example, charts like this: http://lenkiefer.com/2019/06/16/charting-the-housing-expansion-with-r/  or this https://twitter.com/lenkiefer/status/1223274438298341378/photo/1 .





Dianne Foster

Feb 15, 2020


Do you have figures on how many properties are owned by foreign corporations like Questor (British company buying up mobile home parks),  and Blackstone (British company buying up land who built the NbyNW “student housing” on Lincoln St)?

And is there a way to find how much property in Sehome is owned and operated by Hammer?   I’d like to see a comprehensive report on “Who Owns Bellingham”.    They are trying to blame us old folks who live in the SFZ in a modest house and don’t own anything else,  for the affordability problem.    And I know that getting rid of single family zoning will only lead to more commodifcation and absentee landlordism.    The vacant housing/building tax is a great idea.


Ryan M. Ferris

Feb 15, 2020

I am not able to get a current property database from the County. I submitted an affadavit that I would not use it database for commercial reasons but that wasn’t enough.  I only can give you answers for the 2017 data which is old.  But such information is easy to come by if I had an up to date database. It looked like I would need an attorney to get the data and I haven’t decided to do that yet.


Dianne Foster

Feb 17, 2020

Wow Ryan,   why would you need to get an attorney for a publicly provided database?    I could understand paying for the copying fees,  but that should still be available to a citizen taxpayer.    We have a Sehome meeting next Tuesday the 25th,  and that info would be useful,   as Hammer Prop is running for the board election.   I would like to present to the group that this is not appropriate for a neighborhood association to have a board member that doesn’t live in the ‘hood,  but who owns maybe 50% ot it that will be rented out to a generation that will never own their own property.   It seems to me the purpose of neighborhood associations are to represent residents and small single-owned businesses,   not monopolies.


Ryan Knowlton

Mar 26, 2020

The problem is quite simple. We have several times the amount of people moving here as we have new housing units, and this has been happening for a DECADE or more. About 29% OF OUR POPULATION are students between WWU, WCC, and BTC, which alone puts a huge demand on housing. What happens to the market when then is high demand and no supply? Prices go through the roof, and then our property taxes are valued at these prices….it’s a perpetual means to higher and higher home prices and taxes. We’re only 20% behind Seattle on housing cost index, yet wages are just above HALF of that of Seattle. 

I have to dissagree, I do not feel like subsidized housing is the key. Taking our tax dollars and using them to subsidize housing will just make things worse. The “empty middle” is very real in Bellingham. Look at the census results. You’ve got poor, you’ve got students, you’ve got a sprinkling of a few % of middle class, and then you’ve got the rich. This is continuing to worsen, higher paying positions of $60K-$70K are going unfilled due to no “affordable housing”, and middle class families are getting smart and leaving to places where the income/housing cost ratios are better. The wait list for Section 8 housing is enormous, last I heard there was a wait list for the wait list. Out of state/country investors are taking advantage of the situation and purchasing single family homes and transforming them into student flop houses….it’s literally a cancer that is spreading up the street in the single family neighboorhood I currently reside in. Existing homeowners that got in before the huge rise in prices now face huge property tax increases, some exceeding what their mortgage payments once were. And then, the rich implants keep coming, but all want to be the last one in and close the door on everyone else by pushing NIMBY policies that only further rot an already awful housing situation.

I view this place with a Titanic movie like statement. Residents: “Only the top 13% of income earners in Bellingham can afford the average listed home price in Bellingham”.  Bellingham/Mega Landlords respond: ” The better 13%.....”.

Sadly, I think the people and situations above have a chokehold on Bellingham and it’s housing situation is too far gone to save. We’re going to see the continued hollowing out of the middle class and concentration of the remaining few die-hards into Section-8 and tiny over priced apartments, worsening traffic as more people have to commute from further away to work the remaining jobs, and the continued losses of small businesses facing increases in rents, taxes, and lack of skilled employees.  





Paul K Schissler

Mar 26, 2020

Ryan, one clarification about property taxes - Property taxes on homes do not go up because home prices go up. Do not overlook Equalization that the County Assessor applies annually. The taxes on one’s home might go up when taxing authorities increase the annual revenue to be equalized and the tax base doesn’t keep up. Also when voters approve tax measures. Also when one’s home increases in value relative to other homes. Also when residential property values increase relative to commecial and industrial values (a tax shift onto homeowners and their tenants and tax relief for nonresidential property owners).  I’m probably forgetting a couple other variables. 

I do not agree with everything in you post, and I don’t share your pessimism that the housing situation is too far gone to save. The problem is not simple. It will take a while, but decommidification of a least half of all homes will result in homes that can stay affordable permanently for the wide range of incomes that we have and will have.

Thanks for adding to the dialogue. 

To comment, Log In or Register
©1995-2021 Northwest Citizen LLC | Each writer retains the copyright to their articles. Copyright & Contact