What the citizens did on Monday evening, 19 August, before the Bellingham City Council [12:15 on the video counter here] was that which people do when their government does not provide them with a way to voice their objections. They took the only route possible to either draw attention to their plight or be consigned to silence, except for a 14 day, written only, public comment period on a complicated project. City Council members needed to see the consequences of their legislation on the lives of all in the name of a Quixotic quest for infill that cannot work except to financially feed developers and those in the building industries.
The CityView project, with 408 beds and set up as a dormitory, is so monumentally out of place as to beggar description. It was only made possible by a confusing and dubious series of horse trading deals regarding density in the Hawley Tract over the last several decades. This area should be a transition zone, but to convince developer Madrona Bay Real Estate Investments to build missing middle/infill tool kit housing would take some old-fashion jaw-boning. Moreover, let’s not forget there is a Puget Neighborhood Plan calling for medium density in the area of CityView. Unfortunately, Puget residents will soon look up at a 5-6 story wall 100 feet from their breakfast nooks. Meanwhile, our city codes are revised to provide faster and simpler processes for developers, administrative in nature, that shut out citizen involvement with short response times.
Mayors and council members have the bully pulpit and the power to execute and legislate respectively. If council and the mayor are really committed to changing the thoughts and behaviors of developers in order to get missing middle housing, I suggest stopping the distribution of the candy and ice cream, mounting the pulpit, and starting to talk no-nonsense from the dais. Developers need to eat their peas and broccoli and become members of the community in which they live. As long as they know they can get whatever they want, with the likes of CityView, because they think they are indispensable, they won’t care one whit about infill. The advantage to building stuff like CityView, instead of affordable infill housing, is that they get tax breaks and exemptions that are eventually and ultimately paid by the citizens. City Hall has to break from these old, failed tactics.
There has also been what can only be described as willful neglect on the part of WWU which has added only 370 dormitory beds in the last 4-5 decades. This has led us to the de facto privatization of dormitory space, which is to the detriment of students who not only have to deal with rising tuition but rising housing costs as they are left to the whims of the market and landlord-ism.
Human beings count too, those who worked hard to buy their home or work several jobs to pay the rent that increases because the landlords can do it with impunity. Similarly, giving developers carte blanche to build will not reduce rents or home costs or save the countryside and it certainly will not get your “missing middle” housing. The housing equity assessment update, given at the 19 August planning committee meeting, said it was all about the question, “Why is housing expensive?” The response was, “A city government does not have control over the factors that make up the majority of housing costs.” All we now see in Bellingham are citizens nibbling on the edges without effect, except to give breaks to the building industry and leave the taxpayers behind.
All of this above is a manifestation of the brutal and intractable situation in which we find ourselves mired. The options left to communities to deal with situations not of their making are so limited as to be non-existent. What does remain are the efforts we are now witnessing that will not work and, in fact, will exacerbate living conditions of all and serve only to enrich a few. We are operating under larger forces, a decades-long neoliberal austerity that is imposed from state and federal level. What is left is that we flail about, snarling and snapping at one another. Unless and until the root causes of this austerity are recognized and dealt with, we cannot succeed. I hear little of this recognition from the city council dais. Therein lies the problem.