Housing affordability cannot be addressed in a vacuum because affordable housing is only one part of the Housing Trilemma, which consists of affordable housing, a strong economy and a high quality of life.
As the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis (OOEA) recently found, “Cities face tradeoffs in terms of housing affordability, job availability and quality of life.” The OOEA’s Housing Trilemma study found that only eight of the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas rank in the top half of all three categories. None rank among the top 20 in all three categories.
As you might expect, cities that have affordable housing generally rank low in economic vitality or quality of life - or both. It comes as no surprise that places with strong economies and high quality of life are expensive places to live.
Bellingham officials are attempting - again - to solve our so-called housing crisis. The question is: Have they set out on an impossible mission?
Whether or not the mission is impossible may ultimately be determined by how the problem is defined. Having followed this issue locally for more than a decade, I have yet to see our city leaders present a clear definition of the problem.
Typically, the problem of affordable housing is presented as a statistic: those who pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing are considered cost burdened and may have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation and medical care.
As with any statistic, the findings are often misleading. More importantly, defining the problem as a statistic diverts attention away from the actual people who are not able to find suitable housing they can afford.
Eleven years ago, former City Councilmember Joan Beardsley and I met several times and exchanged more than a dozen emails addressing Bellingham’s housing affordability. Joan was part of a city-sponsored affordable housing committee that was dominated by development interests who were myopically focused on solving the problem by simply building more new housing units.
Although never formalized, the committee’s definition of the problem appeared to be:
1. How can we ensure that a meaningful number of inexpensive units are built in Bellingham?
2. How can we ensure that we have a permanent supply of inexpensive units?
At the time, I strongly recommended to Joan that the committee define the problem in terms of people, not buildings:
1. How many people who have lived and worked in Bellingham for a while are unable to find affordable housing?
2. What is the gap between how much these existing residents can afford and what housing actually costs?
3. How can we help the largest number of existing residents obtain affordable housing, both now and in the future?
Joan and I ultimately developed a solution based on an Affordable Housing Endowment that would provide assistance to existing residents based on a number of factors, including financial need and length of time they had lived in Bellingham. The endowment was to be funded with increased impact fees on new construction and not through higher property taxes. Our solution was rejected by the committee in favor of a focus on construction of new units.
A few days ago, on Monday August 14, the Bellingham City Council Planning Committee met, yet again, to address Bellingham’s housing crisis. Again, an actual definition of the problem was never provided. And again, the conversation was dominated by development interests and was focused on new housing units.
Here’s the problem: Simply building more units does not guarantee that current Bellingham residents who need affordable housing will actually be housed in these new units. Based on past experience, it’s more likely that non-Bellingham residents will move here from somewhere else and purchase the vast majority of these new units. Consequently, the real problem of housing our existing residents will persist.
Who are we providing affordable housing for?
Are we attempting to provide affordable housing for every person who may want to move to Bellingham at any point in the future?
Or, should we focus on providing affordable housing for existing residents who already live, work, and have established roots here?
The first question attempts to deal with an infinite problem that is unsolvable. It is a true “mission impossible” based on the false premise that a city can build its way out of the affordable housing/economy/quality of life trilemma. Have any cities actually accomplished that, or have they simply been chasing their tails?
The second question is finite and potentially solvable.
I suggest we work on the latter.