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April Barker Mayor? - An Equity Assessment of the Candidate

By On

April Barker, self-styled champion of affordable housing and “missing middle” housing, has some explaining to do. Bellingham’s population did not explode over night causing a housing shortage. The shortage of affordable “missing middle” houses—a term that Barker likes to use—was created by real estate investors like Barker herself, who have spent years grabbing up the low-hanging fruit.

Rental ownership is big business in Bellingham where the largest employer, Western Washington University, has exacerbated the housing crisis by failing to provide enough student housing for the past 45 years. Consequently, there’s big money to be made in the rental industry by those who have been collecting houses as commodities, not as their residence. This is the real estate investor’s little secret: buy one property, leverage it, buy another, leverage it, buy another and so on.

When Barker speaks about the housing crisis, she does not mention the impact this speculative buy-up of once affordable family housing has had. As a candidate, she loudly professes support for the un-housed and the families struggling to find stable housing. Yet personally, she owns multiple rentals, making it pretty clear that her money is not where her mouth is.

Consider this before you vote. Candidate Barker owns three rentals, according to her candidate web page. As a professed “business owner,” that is her business: owning rentals. She has rental housing assets in excess of $1,000,000 with an putative rental income (by Zillow) of approximately $48,000 per year. Perhaps she is offering these homes at bargain basement rents but, if that is the case, she needs to clearly explain. These three rental properties were bought for a relative song: one in 2005 for $110,000, one in 2011 for $200,000, and yet another just last year for $215,000. With a current putative value $1,075,000 she has effectively doubled her money. [Nota Bene: The city’s median home price is nearly $500K.] Rather than risk casino stock market investing, the strategy for investments here was to buy rental houses. And it has worked well for many owners, like Barker. It has not worked so well for a city that struggles to find affordable housing for first-time buyers.

This personal financial journey of hers calls into question her seriousness and effectiveness as a candidate for mayor. On one hand, she presents herself as a leader who is lamenting that not enough affordable housing is on the market or being built in the city. While on the other hand, she is an investor who is actually buying up “missing middle” housing. Calls for her to recuse herself when the council considers issues that relate to landlord real estate holdings, and her role as a landlord, are ignored and brushed off as inconsequential. But make no mistake, Barker is part of the landlord class that has created a city full of renters paying for over-priced housing. And she is working diligently in her council role to see that investment in real estate is preserved for those who have the cash.

You will not see her ask anything of the landlord class when she speaks of the privileged. In her mind, the privileged are the working-stiff homeowners in our neighborhoods and the neighborhood associations that she blames for pushing back against her wild-west zoning proposals. Want proof? Watch this short video clip. Perhaps that is the reason she did not invite a single neighborhood representative to participate in her “equity audit,” a recent series of work sessions by the council’s planning committee on housing and affordability.

A quick look at Barker’s political contributors should tell you even more about her attractiveness as a candidate to occupy the mayor’s office at city hall. Here is a sample from the state’s public disclosure site:

Mark Meaker of Harborside Construction ($250)

Peter Dawson of Dawson Construction ($1000)

Larrabee Springs, Inc [Caitac] ($500)

Darcy Jones of Jones Engineering ($250)

Brodie Calandar of Kohanaiki Real Estate ($250)

Get the drift?

This is April’s favorite quote according to her city website page: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” ~ Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

My advice then to April Barker, candidate for mayor, “If you talk the talk, then walk the walk.”

About Dick Conoboy

Citizen Journalist and Editor • Member since Jan 26, 2008

Dick Conoboy is a recovering civilian federal worker and military officer who was offered and accepted an all-expense paid, one year trip to Vietnam in 1968. He is a former Army [...]

Comments by Readers

Larry Horowitz

Jul 06, 2019

National Public Radio’s recent article 1st-Time Homebuyers Are Getting Squeezed Out By Investors confirms Dick’s claim that real estate investors like April are exacerbating the affordable housing crisis.  It seems disingenuous for April to claim that addressing the housing crisis and providing housing equity are her priorities when she competes with homebuyers for affordable housing.

According to NPR:

“It’s gotten a lot harder for first-time homebuyers to nab that dream house.  The pool of smaller, affordable starter houses is low.  And increasingly, first-time homebuyers are competing with investors who are buying up these homes.  Last year, investors accounted for 1 in 5 starter-priced homes.

“Tonya Jones, a Realtor in metro Atlanta, says it is frustrating both for agents and for their first-time homebuying clients when they can’t compete with investors.  First-time buyers typically put down 3%-5%, Jones said.  ‘Then they’re walking in competing with an all-cash buyer who can close whenever the seller is ready.  Typically, a first-time homebuyer can’t work under those parameters.’ 

“As investors snap up more properties, they’re helping drive up prices in many cities nationwide…  Lawrence Yun, chief economist at the National Association of Realtors, said investor buying could lead to great wealth inequality as homeowners and investors profit and non-homeowners are left behind.”

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Michael Chiavario

Jul 07, 2019

April is not one of those multiple rental owning Mega landlords who are profiting from properties they bought up two decades ago. She acquired her properties relatively recently. One of them she lived in while they fixed it up. She charges below-market rents and provides affordable rentals for folks that can’t afford to be buyers. This is not “removing housing from the missing middle”.  The article states that we “will not see her ask anything of the landlord class”. In fact, April went up against the state landlords Association to put renter protections into Bellingham ordinances as a council member. April listened to Neighbors when they said absentee landlords shouldn’t be able to build ADUs on their properties. She helped to prevent more absentee landlords of the worst kind from buying up more properties in neighborhoods by instituting the ownership requirement for building an ADU. Simply owning a few rentals does not contribute to the inflation in housing costs at all. It is the market system and commodification of housing that got us to this point and April understands that. She understands as I do that we have to move a much higher percentage of homes out of the marketplace into permanently affordable ownership status. In a way,  within the current system , being a small landlord that charges only fair rents to folks who can’t afford to buy helps a few people with affordability. I am an affordable housing activist. I am on the board of the Kulshan Community Land Trust. I would not be supporting April if I thought she was contributing to the problem rather than the solutions. The fact that some of her contributors are builders means nothing negative.  Builders are needed to construct affordable housing.  I began discussions with local landowners and housing activists some months ago only to discover that April had already been talking to them about the same goals - building permanently affordable housing in a potential new redevelopment. April is about Equity. About people being able to afford to live in any neighborhood in Bellingham while not being segregated by class or race into just certain parts of town.

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Larry Horowitz

Jul 07, 2019

Michael,

1) According to the article referenced in my previous comment, “Investors have always made up a big part of the market for starter homes. But smaller investors are playing a growing role.  Last year, these mom and pop investors represented 60% of investor purchases – up from 48% in 2013.” 

In other words, although April is not a “Mega landlord,” she is a “multiple rental owning” landlord who, along with thousands of other smaller investors, is squeezing out 1st-time homebuyers.

2) When you wrote about ADUs, you conveniently ignored the fact that April originally proposed removing the owner occupancy requirement.  Her plan was defeated, but not because she listened to neighbors.  In fact, she fought the neighbors to the end.  After her defeat, she insisted that the removal of owner occupancy needs to be looked at again.  If she no longer feels that way, she needs to make that statement herself.  Based on her prior comments, I’d be surprised if she doesn’t recommend removing the owner occupancy requirement if she’s elected.

3) In my opinion, one key issue is the belief by April (and others) that in order to provide suitable housing, people living in single-family neighborhoods must sacrifice everything they worked their entire lives for.  I disagree.  That seems unfair and is certainly not a win-win solution. 

4) Another key issue, in my opinion, is the fact that no one seems to be spending time and energy figuring out ways to improve the parts of town that they deem are not worth living in.  I understand the desire to provide affordable housing in every neighborhood, but the underlying premise is that the areas where affordable housing is currently available are not desirable.  If I were running for mayor, I would spend a large portion of my time making these parts of town more desirable.  It seems that’s where April’s focus should be.  Not on inflicting harm on those who are happy with where they live.

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Dick Conoboy

Jul 07, 2019

Michael,

She has been acquiring properties for the last 15 years if recency means anything at all but it doesn’t.  She is part of the rent extraction part of the economy and is sitting on assets that could go to three families.  Perhaps she does not charge market rates but if that is the claim, then tell us what she is charging.  Even so, that does not exonerate her from removing three units of her missing middle housing from being bought by those who need it and who can take advantage of the increasing home value.  She has her own $430K home that has doubled in price since she bought it in 2008.   So why does she get to sit on 4 homes of $1.5 million in value while there is a housing shortage and then preach to us about how difficult it will be for the neighborhoods when her zoning ambitions are put into place and that we need to get used to it?  I call bullshit on your defense.   The truth is that when there are hundreds of April Barkers out there buying up property, you end up with what we have here - a housing shortage, landlord rent extraction and debt peonage. 

You are in the realm of fanatasy when you say “She helped to prevent more absentee landlords of the worst kind from buying up more properties in neighborhoods by instituting the ownership requirement for building an ADU. “  What happened is that she convinced others on the council to remove the owner occupancy requirement from the comp plan during the review in 2016 and then had to retract her action and ask them to replace owner occupancy.   Please stop this revisionist crap as if she were some sort of pioneer.  This is not the Ministry of Truth here.  If it will help your memory you can hear Barker try to walk back what she did during this meeting of the committee of the whole on 28 Aug 2016.  Go to 49:37 on the video counter and listen to her tortured explanation (at times incomprehensible). 

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Michael Chiavario

Jul 07, 2019

Dick and Larry we have a market based system of valuing homes as commodities. Some peope play nice in this flawed system and some play as selfishly as they can. owning a rental does not contribute to inflation of local home prices until you charge full market rates for rent or sell at full market rate.

April voted for the ADU ordinance in the end and spoke forcefully for its passage the night of the vote outside the City Hall. I was there. That was the action in the end . That is what counts, not speculation on what may happen in the future. If a future Council may the occupancy requirement. It will be up to them, not the mayor.

Everyone does not want or can afford to buy homes. I know other landlords who have a rental who charge below market because it is the right thing to do. 

I will continue to work to make 50% of housing non-market owned because that is the ultimate solution to the affordability problem.

Neither I nor April are asking anyone to ‘sacrifice everything .....’. . Lower income neighborhoods like Rosevelt south of Alabama and Bakerview are largely built in multifamily units with few single family units around. there are few areas where lower income folks can afford to rent besides these and a couple of others and there are not nearly enough. In my personal view, new affordable units need to be spread around town, first on arterials around single family neighborhoods and then as gradual infill on block ends such as duplexes and triplexes. This can be done well and not detract from neighborhood character. Preserving green spaces is also important as in the Vienna Model.

 

 

 

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Mike Rostron

Jul 07, 2019

Don’t be “April Fooled.” The fact is, there are hundreds of acres in Bellingham city limits, some quite close in, that could and should be developed for affordable housing before we destroy the old SF zoned areas.                 

There is absolutely no reason to ruin the older SF zoned neighborhoods to allow for more density at this time. That might change in the future, but at least for now, citizens should strive to preserve and enhance the parts of the city that give Bellingham it’s (rapidly vanishing) wonderful character, which is essentially, a sort of rural feel and a predominance of older homes and public buildings, from an era when more attention was given to architectural design. 

In any case, in an economy where the stock market is gamed for the wealthy, few will get pensions, and medical care can quickly bankrupt; where  it’s hard to make ends meet, raise a family, or plan for retirement,  folks who can manage it will flip homes or become small-time land-lords to gain a bit of security. Some of the problem, in other words, is systemic and goes well beyond our local situation. 

But there is certainly no reason to exacerbate the situation by electing a fox to sit in the henhouse!

 

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Larry Horowitz

Jul 07, 2019

Michael,

We’ve been friends for a long time, and I certainly don’t enjoy disagreeing with you, but…

1) Repeating my prior comment, small real estate investors do in fact squeeze out 1st-time homebuyers.  They compete with them and, because they accumulate so many rentals, they obviously are willing to pay more than 1st -time homebuyers can.  Clearly, this causes inflation on home prices and, ultimately, rents.  The more investors pay, the more they will need to charge their renters.

2) Regarding the ADU ordinance, April’s vote in favor of legalizing DADUs in every single-family neighborhood citywide is considered by many residents a terrible thing.  Certainly nothing to brag about.  If her vote is “what counts,” then count me out.  An awful decision on her part.  You can continue to misrepresent and discount April’s push to eliminate the owner-occupancy requirement, but the fact remains that she did push for it, and when she failed, she promised to bring it up again at a later date.  Believing in April as you do, I suspect you believe she’ll live up to that promise.  I certainly do.

3) The problem with non-market owned homes is that they all require local taxpayers to subsidize their construction.  Many of these homes are then purchased by people who are not already Bellingham residents.  Consequently, Bellingham residents end up subsidizing people to move here.  I strongly oppose that proposition.

4) No one has claimed that you are asking anyone to “sacrifice everything.”  But April is already on record that, regarding zoning reform, she’d make “major changes.”  I’ll stick with my assertion that these major changes will, in fact, require “people living in single-family neighborhoods to sacrifice everything they worked their entire lives for.”  Lost will be the vitality and character of their neighborhoods; the peacefulness and privacy they invested their life savings for. 

If you don’t believe me, just watch this 90-second video of excerpts from the 2017 Housing Week Panel:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E9EJUb7nipI&feature=youtu.be

Here’s a transcript of April’s comments:

1) “A neighborhood association is like quasi-government.  It has a lot of… it informs us as a council.  It has a lot of political clout.  It’s informing all of you that live in that neighborhood whether we’re doing good or bad in the eyes of those board members.  And if those board members are always thinking about protection… about exclusion, that’s informing your council, and it’s making it very hard for this progressive community that’s electing progressive people to go and make these changes because when we start pushing into some of your privileges, you’re pushing back really hard.”

2) “And then, if you go to downtown, well what have we done here?  We’ve downzoned, which means we took all the multi-family around downtown and we pushed it down into single family.”

3) “This environment is a major lever.  Land use and zoning is something I can push and pull as a city councilmember.  But, it’s your neighborhood associations that are blocking a lot of that.”

4) “I mean, it’s our social responsibility.  But, it’s political.  So, what would I change tomorrow if I could change it to make sure that we were distributing those resources equitably and making sure everybody has what they need?  I’d do major changes.  But, then I’ll get myself unelected.”

5) “Because if you believe in these things and you value these things, Bellingham would have no problem making these changes tomorrow.  No problem.  We could get stuff through… literally, we could have zoning reform in 2018.  You have the political will on your council.”

6) “So, it’s going to get uncomfortable, and we’re going to have to make some changes.”   

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Dick Conoboy

Jul 07, 2019

Mike,

Exactly.  Barker is playing both ends against the middle.

As for affordable housing in SF zoned areas, the entirety of the SF zone along the Samish Ridge of the Samish Neighborhood is zoned SF (cluster designation) housing [Zone 5].  That means that the infill tool kit can be used there.  Do you see a Forty-Niners Gold Rush of developers ready to swoop in to build the so-called affordable infill tool kit types?  No you don’t.  The reason is that THEY CANNOT MAKE AS MUCH MONEY!!  We can use the infill tool kit on the largest swath of SF zoned land in Bellingham and nobody is touching it.  What is being built there (think Wildwood area) are the huge homes that are going for $900K plus. 

On a related note, I asked the developer of CityView why he was not using the infill tool kit to build affordable housing (missing middle) on the Hawley parcel since it was zoned multi-family and is open for the infill tool kit.  He said he had looked at it and found that HE COULD NOT MAKE AS MUCH MONEY as building a huge apartment building and being a rentier forever. 

Dick

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John Hatten

Jul 08, 2019

Larry and Dick,

Michael is acknowledging that this is a flawed system, and in a flawed system landlords can be evil (mega-landlords whose primary objective is maximizing profits) and landlords can see the flaws in the system and do their best to balance out competing needs. I don’t know enough about Ms. Barker to endorse or oppose her, but the thing missing for me in your arguments, is a better alternative that addresses the current needs AND the current political reality. And while your at it,  I want to live in a society where every person is guaranteed:

     - Safe and affordable housing
     - Healthy and affordable food
     - Affordable healthcare
     - Safe and affordable childcare for working parents
     - A healthy environment
     - A guaranteed job for every person who wants to work

A guaranteed minimum income might be a step in that direction, but not if the above guaranteers aren’t ensured. Find me a candidate who can bring THAT to Bellingham, and I’ll be with you all the way! In the mean time, knocking Michael’s perspective is contributing to an infighting among well meaing people instead of focusing on the people and corporations that are the real problem.

 

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Larry Horowitz

Jul 08, 2019

John, I have no desire to fight with well-meaning people, but Michael is attempting to defend the indefensible using revisionary tactics.  His claim that April “instituted the ownership requirement for building an ADU” is laughable, as she was the primary driver for eliminating the owner-occupancy requirement.

Dick’s article is about a candidate whose own actions betray her claim about her priorities.  There is no requirement to participate in the flawed real estate system, especially when your participation exacerbates the problem.   April’s choice to compete with first-time homebuyers while claiming to be the champion of affordable housing just doesn’t jive.

There are four candidates for mayor.  I’ll vote for a different one.

No candidate for Bellingham mayor can possibly fill your wish list.  But good luck with that!

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Bryan Jones

Jul 08, 2019

Until my wife and I could afford our own home, we rented from folks who had only a few properties. They wanted their property to be well kept and maintained so did we.  So we took care of the property, they reimbursed us for maintenance costs. They kept rent reasonable, taking their profit in the home appreciation, not my paycheck. We lived in 4 homes like this while my childeren were young. We never were forced to live in an apartment.  In short, this kind of rental helped us prepare and save for our first home.  It is true that the property was off the market while we rented it, but I am grateful it was.

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Dick Conoboy

Jul 08, 2019

 Bryan,

Thanks for taking the time to respond to my article.  I have no reason to doubt your experience with regard to rentals, however, your comment brings  up an important issue as we consider broad issues such as ADUs, rental cost, vacation rentals, fireworks, rental safety, etc.  I wrote about the phenomenon about a year ago in an article entitled Legislation by Anecdote - Accessory Dwelling Units in Bellingham.   Time and time again, well-intentioned citizens provide comments on issues by using some personal experience such as yours.  The problem is that these anecdotes appeal to emotion and are specific without  necessarily being applicable to the whole.  For us to make law or policy about issues, we require data.  Anecdotes may be at best one data point out of thousands or millions but we cannot rely on such information to become truly informed. 

Dick

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Dianne Foster

Jul 08, 2019

Good discussion.   One thing no one has mentioned is that the proposed GMA-mandated density growth will only go into the already dense 7 downtown historic neighborhoods,  as the outer newer ones have legal covenants that allow those residents (whose areas can actually handle more growth) to block infill.     When I brought this question up with Garrett O’Brien who claims he would evenly distribute infill,   he punted and said to “read my plan.”    Most of the old houses in my neighborhood are owned by absentee landlords,   some smaller,  some large companies who can charge by the bedroom.      I’m sure they’re champing at the bit to stick tool kits in the yard for added rent,   and I don’t see that improving affordability.   Worst case scenario would be teardowns for modern multifamily units,  once the zoning protections are lifted.     We have the realtor de-regulator-in- chief in the White House,   so the tone is set.

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Larry Horowitz

Jul 08, 2019

Diane, I don’t believe your understanding of covenants is correct.   Covenants are specific to subdivisions within a neighborhood, not to the entire neighborhood.  For example, in Edgemoor, there are dozens of small subdivisions.  Some have covenants; some don’t.  Most don’t have a homeowners association to defend against violations of those covenants; a few do.   I suspect the same is true in virtually all of the neighborhoods you consider “newer ones.”  

In other words, there aren’t as many places in town that are protected by covenants as you might believe.  Certainly, there are large sections within every one of Bellingham’s two dozen or so neighborhoods that will be affected by the “major changes” and “zoning reform” likely to be proposed.  These changes will not be limited to the 7 downtown historic neighborhoods.

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Dianne Foster

Jul 08, 2019

Larry,   thanks.     I haven’t looked into it independently,   but learned this from former assistant mayor Don Keenan as we attended a BNC meeting.    Where would you find research on this land use issue?     COB planning office?

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Larry Horowitz

Jul 09, 2019

I believe several people have asked the COB planning department to provide information about subdivisions with covenants, but city staff has declined.  Your best bet is the county assessor’s office.   Covenants are attached to the deeds and are recorded documents, but finding all of them would be a very time-consuming process.  Then you’d need to read each set of covenants to see what the restrictions are.  Not sure it would be worth the time.

Here’s a link to a pdf of the various plats (subdivisions) within the Edgemoor neighborhood that Chris Behee in the COB planning department provided.  Each color represents a unique subdivision, which may or may not have a set of covenants and may or may not have an active homeowner’s association.

Hope this helps (although I doubt it really does).

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Dianne Foster

Jul 09, 2019

Wow,  that sheds a different light.  Do you think Edgemoor (or South,  for example)  would be open to the infill toolkit?    It strikes me that there may not be homeowner associations currently in all the plats,   but if some neighbors felt threatened,   they would form one.    A friend who lives in South neighborhood said he wasn’t worrried about it,   as they have “covenants” there.

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Larry Horowitz

Jul 09, 2019

I don’t believe any neighborhood is of a single mind when it comes to land use, so I really have no idea what “Edgemoor” or “South” would be open to.  As a general rule, I suspect that residents who purchased single-family homes in single-family neighborhoods would prefer for that to remain.

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Sam Crawford

Jul 09, 2019

Respect to our builders on the north side of town. The economy is prospering, Bellingham’s in-migrating population is bursting at the seams, and new SF (single family) housing is in demand.

 

I applaud Alliance Properties, Larrabee Springs, Grandview North and other builders, large and small. If anyone hasn’t noticed, they’re providing - at prices below today’s Sunnyland/Columbia/Happy Valley real estate listings - newly built SF housing alternatives that are accessible, energy efficient, stylistically diverse and family friendly. 

 

Not to mention, these new neighborhoods are a long-term relief valve for the political/social-equity zoning pressure on existing SF neighborhoods to densify, infill, or otherwise change existing neighborhood character.

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