[Guest Writer Garrett O’Brien is a lifelong resident of Bellingham and lives with his wife Brittany and their three children in the Birchwood neighborhood. Garrett has worked in the building trades since 1995, has a degree in construction management, and is the president of Volonta Corporation.]
The Seattle Times recently reported a low-magnitude earthquake east of Seattle — the fourth in a series of small quakes affecting the Puget Sound in recent weeks. These events serve as a good reminder of our community’s seismic shifts, but we should remember that our demographics are also shifting with consequences that may prove to be more destructive than the inevitable Cascadia megaquake. An emerging reality is that working-class people cannot afford to live in Bellingham anymore. We are fast becoming an unaffordable and elite enclave nestled in the Pacific Northwest, with rapidly vanishing housing opportunities for most people.
Working as a homebuilder and property developer for twenty years, while watching (and participating in) the displacement of middle-income people by their higher-earning counterparts, it is without pleasure I report that this trend is accelerating.
Musing about my complicity is not without nuance, and I acknowledge my motivations around housing have had conflicting interests at times. I have served as an advocate for free enterprise as a board member of the Building Industry Association, and as an affordable housing advocate on the board of Kulshan Community Land Trust. Further, I served on the Bellingham loan review board for projects seeking funding from the Bellingham Home Fund, as well as serving two terms on the Bellingham Planning Commission. So, it is not without self-reflection that I offer commentary on this issue, but I can say with sincerity that I want Bellingham to be an affordable place to live. Moreover, I believe it is imperative for the health of our community.
Like many complex issues, contradictions are inherent in housing policy, and there are understandable tensions between growth, housing density, environmental stewardship, and neighborhood character. These tensions repeatedly manifest in public discourse and create a regulatory framework that crawls toward uneasy consensus, but ultimately fails to produce enough housing to meet our needs.
Identifying problems without proposing solutions is of little value, so I offer a few ideas, starting with what I believe is past due: the necessity of expanding our Urban Growth Area (UGA) to encompass areas north and northwest of our current boundary. The resistance to expanding our urban footprint is an effort to avoid undesirable urban sprawl, which is valid, but warrants further examination. These areas are already characterized by low-density development, they are not forested, and do not contain productive agricultural land. Other than impacts to wetlands, which are strictly regulated and require mitigation, there is little reason that building a diverse mix of housing types and densities in these areas would classify as sprawl.
In addition to a reasonable expansion of our UGA, our city’s Planning and Community Development department should be more proactively promoting infill within our current city limits. Funds from the voter-approved Home Fund should be used to staff a comprehensive, citywide zoning reform project. It is not that I support a top-down dictate, but rather I believe we need to fund our departments to be able to engage in the necessary work of collaborating with resident stakeholders, and updating neighborhood plans, and identifying appropriate areas for increased density. A successful example to follow would be the collaborative efforts undertaken by the York Neighborhood Association and City to rezone the former Wilson Toyota site to allow for higher density housing. There are many sites in Bellingham that would be appropriate for this exercise, including but not limited to: the city-owned former Clean Green property, the underdeveloped industrial lands adjacent to Bellingham Cold Storage, and perhaps proactive planning for what may soon be the former Bellis Fair Mall site. After a thorough public process, some neighborhood plans may find they allow for the construction of duplexes on corner lots — or encourage moderate density town homes along transit routes.
These ideas and more should be considered and worked through in a persistent and determined manner to ensure that we do not allow our housing crisis to escalate further. There is still hope to prevent a full-scale demographic shift—but to realize that hope, our housing policies will need to shift as well.