[Our Guest Writer, Scott Jones, is a resident of Bellingham since 2010, from Eugene, Oregon. A father and an entrepreneur, Scott advocates for Hunger Relief and Affordable Housing through non-profits and solid government policy.]
Confusion persists as we continue to grapple with the housing crisis in Bellingham. Arguments for affordable housing end in policies that only help housing choice. These are two very different issues that often get mixed together. Yet in the end, for those at the lower rungs of the economic ladder who truly need affordable housing, it is dangerous to conflate them.
Housing choice is being able to choose the type of home you want in the area of town you want. This is a quality of life issue and an important one, but not a right nor a requirement to live safely.
Affordable housing is being able to rent or buy a home that you can afford for less than 30% of your income. This allows for a ratio of expenditure that balances life sustaining needs such as housing, food, medicine, transportation, insurance, etc.
To flip the issue on its head, in Bellingham, proponents of Yes In My Backyard (YIMBY), righteously assert they are in the right and are helping the world. In the end, the policies they fight for help the middle class live in the neighborhoods of their choice.
However, the end result does not create affordable housing, even though they pull at the heart strings of the community because they promise the policies they advocate are for the poor.
These good-intentioned residents don't follow-up to see the unintended consequences of their arguments. The animosity created and the confusion within the community breaks down dialogue and stops residents from continuing to fight for affordable housing.
Residents either think the solution is complete, or they are fed up with the negativity and walk away. Is that the intention of leaders vying for housing choice veiled as affordable housing? I hope not, because that would border on evil.
We must separate the problems of housing choice and affordable housing. They are both real, but more often than not they affect two disparate populations. The solutions are also very different.
Housing choice is mostly a zoning issue, allowing more diverse types of housing in more places. This increase in inventory is one of the arguments that gets lost in translation. An example of choice vs. affordability is the local Detached Accessory Dwelling Unit (DADU). An upwelling of support is given to an increase in inventory, but these not so tiny houses in backyards can only be afforded by the middle class because of the cost to build them, and the usual quality level that the home owner choses to build at (for higher rental profits).
After DADUs were legalized in single family zoning areas in Bellingham in 2018, under the guise of affordable housing, the proponents who fought vehemently for the zoning change, went quiet on the issue. As if the problem were solved. DADUs started going up and housing choice increased.
Affordable housing did not. The advocates for the DADUs said that every new housing unit mattered to help the affordability crisis. It might have, if the quantity of new housing units were great enough to make an impact on the market. Unfortunately, the quantity was minuscule compared to the number needed to make a dent.
Were there no other policies that could have been fought for that would have actually helped? Did these housing hawks who so loudly screamed “affordable housing!” from their nests think the problem was solved? Or that there was no more to be done? It seems so, or in the end they just didn’t really care about affordable housing in the first place.
Since then, two very important possibilities have come to light that could actually have an effect on affordable housing, i.e. housing for those who without it, will become homeless. That is what we should fight for, affordable housing. The first opportunity is Intended Density in MultiFamily Zoned areas. Actually having multifamily development in multifamily zoned areas is a slam dunk, but for decades it was not defined nor enforced by City Hall.
Thousands of possible units were made impossible by building single family homes in multifamily zoned areas. A moratorium on building is now allowing a pause and a policy change that will fix this issue. Where were the housing choice advocates back then who were screaming for affordable housing? We applaud the city for taking this long forgotten step, but it has created challenges for those who bought into those ‘single family’ multifamily zoned neighborhoods. But that’s another article.
The second opportunity, which I have been asking the planning director about for years, is to require developers to set aside a portion of every new development for permanent affordable housing. This is a common, standard practice, but one that the city has refused to implement. The response has always been that if we required this, developers would not build.
That is now no longer the case. In one of the last acts of Planning Director Rick Sepler’s career, he finally agreed this requirement is possible. It is finally time for the false rhetoric to stop. It is time for those in the top tiers of local leadership to either lead the way, or step down.