Unaffordable Housing?

Today’s Bellingham Herald has an interesting article on a report recently released by the Countywide Housing Affordability Task force.

Today’s Bellingham Herald has an interesting article on a report recently released by the Countywide Housing Affordability Task force.

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Today’s Bellingham Herald has an interesting article on a report recently released by the Countywide Housing Affordability Task force: “Task force: Local tax money key to affordable housing”

According to the article, Paul Schissler, of the Kulshan Community Land Trust and a task force member, wants to add 25 cents per $1,000 of property valuation to “...generate a lot of local money…” He thinks a local levy is two or three years away.

Ted Mischaikov, local developer and task force member, says real estate is the most equitable source of funding “...because the sale of increasingly expensive properties is closely related to making housing expensive…” I’m not sure how adding costs is supposed to solve that problem.

Many who purchased their homes long enough ago that their mortgages are now affordable are finding that their burgeoning tax assessments are already making life less affordable. Does making existing homeowners’ property less affordable seem like a reasonable way to create affordable housing for others?

The problem is that we have legislated affordability out of the housing market and need to rethink our land use codes. Providing affordable housing and meeting our infill goals can be easily addressed with the stroke of a pen. It could be accomplished without public funds.

Allowing mother-in-law cottages and carriage house apartments could radically increase the supply and diversity of housing stock without creating huge public costs for infrastructure or public services - and without necessitating up-zones destructive of neighborhood character.

Such units would help property owners pay their bills, help residents save toward down-payments on property of their own, provide better eyes-on-the-street security for everyone and offer better supervision against common “animal house” nuisances like parking, noise, litter, etc.

Before we start taxing people out of their homes, let’s try enabling the market to meet these needs. That’s better than encouraging large tax-based empires. Large budgets and bureaucracies are susceptible to favoritism and abuse. They tend to become self-serving. Government intervention in markets should be reserved for things the private sector cannot reliably provide. The first step should be to remove the barriers to market adaptation.

Also, be careful who you lavish tax monies upon. We have already found that funding one cause can horribly interfere with the function of others (See Related NwCitizen Articles).

About Tip Johnson

Citizen Journalist and Editor • Member since Jan 11, 2008

Tip Johnson is a longtime citizen interest advocate with a record of public achievement projects for good government and the environment. A lifelong student of government, Tip served two terms [...]

Comments by Readers

John Watts

Jul 30, 2008

I’d take the pontifications about raising property taxes anytime soon -without a vote of the people- with a large grain of salt. While that may be seen as a viable source of funding, much more public discussion is needed to even explain how such a concept might work, and what it might cost individual property owners.

Not having seen this report, which comes about 6 months later than anticipated, it isn’t possible to even know what is being recommended, much less really weigh the various ideas that have been distilled from this Committee’s process.

One topic that has not yet been mentioned is the concept of so-called ‘inclusionary zoning’, which would create lots set aside for strictly affordable housing -by some definition- by requiring say 10 to 20 % of the new land value created by up-zoning for housing development be dedicated to that purpose.

Of course that idea is less than popular with land use speculators and real estate developers, but it would a fair way to provide for truly affordable housing, because typical land costs account for about one-third of these costs.

This concept has been successfully tried elsewhere, and during the 1970’s was even suggested as a better method than the zoning system in current use.

I also agree that ADUs [Accessory Dwelling Units] can play a more useful role than they do in providing more affordable housing. But, that’s also a no-no in some neighborhoods, isn’t it?

Because this committee was constituted for Countywide purposes, I am surprised not to hear proposals that ask Whatcom County to apply for CDBG funds from the Federal Government. The City applies for these every year and the proceeds go toward paying for much of what is included in the City’s CONSOLIDATED Plan, including affordable housing and housing for the homeless.

But, one thing is for sure; this will be a hot topic that will be debated ad infinitum!


Dick Conoboy

Jul 31, 2008

Note:  A draft of the “final” CHAT report can be found here:  http://www.cob.org/government/public/chat/chat-meeting.aspx.  The final version is likely not to be drastically different.

I have to disagree with Tip on the ADUs and carriage/cottage houses. These seemingly benign ideas are fraught with problems, not the least of which are placement and enforcement. Will any single family home that meets the basic requirements be allowed to have one? How many will you allow on one street? One block? Who decides who gets to build one? Who will police these things? We have trouble enforcing code as it is, e.g., illegal rooming houses. The council would not even consider hiring one additional code enforcement officer and gave the duties to our already overburdened Litter Control Officer.

Economics will push an owner to move into the ADU and rent the ?big house.? I have seen it on my street where the owner moved into his ?ADU? and rents it to groups of people. An ADU here and an ADU there, a street sprinkled with an illegal rooming house or two and you have lost your neighborhood character. Believe me, I have seen it - first hand. Now the city council is looking at increasing the number of unrelated individuals in a single family home to four. An end run around the neighborhoods, who have been told that they will control ?the where? of infill.  No planning, no control, no enforcement, no standards, no consideration of feasibility, no coordination with the neighborhoods?yadda, yadda, yadda.  See more on this at my blog: http://www.zonemaven.blogspot.com

As for a tax increase to fund some sort of affordable housing, I am against anything of the sort which would only hit Bellingham citizens.  The fact of the matter is that if we did not have 8,000 students from WWU vying for housing, we probably would not be discussing this.  WWU is a state institution.  Students come to WWU from all over the state.  Any program which is set up to alleviate the negative effects of a large, state sponsored student population should be shared across the board, by all Washington citizens. Unfortunately all WWU can talk about is creating the Huxley-on-the-Bay resort (estimated to attract 500 new students) while it builds a risible 200 bed addition to one of its dorms.

On a national level, maybe Bellingham can grab part of that $4 billion pot of grants that the mortgage bail-out bill has just authorized for refurbishing foreclosed properties.  That way we can spread the cost to our children, our grandchildren, great-grandchildren and beyond, ad infinitum.


Tip Johnson

Jul 31, 2008


If you think ADUs are a problem, wait until you see the long-term effect up-zones for urban villages could have on neighborhoods.

In Happy Valley, we have witnessed the tendency for more intense land uses to gradually expand their borders.

Proponents of such expansion can assemble properties on the edge of the zone, allow them to deteriorate or put them into transitional uses, and then plead a very rational case to the council that the previous upzone has rendered their property unsuitable for its historic use. Presto! Another rezone.

At least with ADUs, the potential for zoning creep is limited. Enforcement should be much less of a problem than with zoning infractions, since the owner has to live with it, too. They would still be subject to complaint for any objectionable nuisances.

In your example, you give no indication whether there were problems other than a few more people. In the past, you have complained of various nuisance behaviors emanating from rooming houses. Things like noise, trash, outdoor urination, fights, etc.

Nuisances are far less likely with ADUs because of the close supervision from the principal structure - with the neighbors as a back-up. No one has to confront a faceless real estate rental agency, just talk with your neighbor and eventually lodge a complaint if a remedy is not forthcoming.

When I refer to neighborhood character changes, I mean increased building scale, wider, faster roads, more greasy parking lots, overflowing dumpsters - and the increase of nuisance behavior often seen with “animal house” housing types - such as the four bedroom duplex units of Adrick Place.

If a few more people means neighborhood character change for you, I think you’ll just have to get over it. The costs of sprawl and providing urban services to low residential densities is what drives the interest in urban villages and affordable housing.

Perhaps after we solve the population problem we can all experiment with lavish accomodations. In the meantime, everyone needs a place to be and the cost of housing ought to be within the range of means afforded by the local economy. Otherwise, we are creating a lot of costly problems.

I say stick with defining what constitutes acceptable neighborhood behavior, finding ways to effectively enforce objectionable nuisances and learn to accept a few more folks if they can live within that framework.


Dick Conoboy

Aug 01, 2008

Regarding my example of an ADU on my street, I just found out from the city that there is no legal ADU for that property.  Other than the fact that the home was (and remains) an illegal rooming house, there were additional problems of an assault/property damage (with arrest), hulk vehicles, abandoned vehicles, running a business from the home, unattached trailers parked on the street, and 8-9 cars/vans/trucks parked helter-skelter.  So much for the landlord living at the property. Were this the only house, that would be one story but there were three additional rooming houses on our block, each with 5-6 renters and attendant vehicles.  Of these three, two were actually “owner” occupied, that is, the son(s) of the owners lived there and invited their buddies to join them.  The other home, owned by a well-known problem landlord, had five students in it, one of whom was living in the garage. 

None of my complaints to the city regarding illegal rooming houses was ever addressed to the point that the owner reduced the number of renters.  So with this kind of enforcement, you can understand my reluctance to see the city to let loose an ADU invasion into our neighborhoods.  This is uncontrolled infill of the worst kind - not just a few more people.

I guess “getting over it” is just not in my vocabulary.  I am rather like that piece of plastic wrap that sticks to your hand when you try to toss it in the trash - it won’t let go.


L.S. King

Aug 04, 2008

Those who read the Herald today now know the fate of the “inclusionary zoning” mentioned in the first comment: the speculators have gotten their way, and no recommendation for that option will be forthcoming in this report.

I hope that the City and County Council will still keep an open mind on inclusionary zoning, despite the bias of the task force report.

We are left with the tax levy idea, as well as the ideas for ADUs, cottages, and for “streamlined permitting” of projects that meet criteria. There are also many ideas for upzones, and for creating all kinds of “bonuses” for developers who meet density goals.

Several other things of interest: the task force was dominated by builders, lenders, and real estate people. City and County officials included some who have already publicly expressed the opinion that the controversial King Mountain annexation proposal by Ralph Black and Alliance properties should go through.

This would be a development on view hillside that is currently undeveloped. It would bulge out the City even farther to the North and open a road through what up until now has remained a wildlife corridor and natural barrier to further spread out into the County.

This also looks to be an expensive project that seems unlikely to afford much in the way of affordable housing. As proposed, it looks like a density dump on an existing neigbhorhood that would forever have its character altered.

Perhaps meeting on the same board with Mr. Black for well over a year gave him a bit of a head start in his argument for this proposal, while citizens are still being given the impression they will have a real say on this issue.

The recent revelation of the Parks LOS numbers effect on the Land Supply figures says the recent addition of the King Mountain area, or for that matter ANY area to the UGA should get another look, as there is no longer any justification at this time to add to the UGA.

Neighborhood character is mentioned quite a bit in the Task Force report, but no neighborhood groups were represented on the Task Force. However, the affordable housing issue is a topic of great interest to neighborhoods and the public.

Many members of the public were motivated to testified on issues that touch on neighborhood character, infill, affordable housing, and sizing the UGA during the UGA sizing process that was completed earlier this year. I hope that this report will not be accorded any special status over the opinions of other members of the public who may not agree with the Task Force conclusions, and that the public will still be able to have some influence on how this report is received by the Mayor and Councils.

Reading some of the “Notes” from the Task Force meetings proves very interesting. The Task Force seems to be taking pains to want to “sell” this report. A human interest story was suggested as part of this effort.

The letter on the final report to the Mayor and Council includes just such a story, about a family with the father serving in Iraq, and how the wife and children are barely able to find a way to remain in the community, where they would like to stay to take advantage of family support.

Many people are having difficulty obtaining affordable housing here. I think it’s a shame that those writing this report felt the need to “sell” their conclusions this way, and I a am not sure how the Task Force recommendations would serve this family any better than inclusionary zoning would.

It is hard not to feel that a differently constituted task force might have come back with a significantly different report, perhaps one that DID include inclusionary zoning.

It will be interesting to see if this Task Force report will be substituted for broad public input on this topic. It would be nice to see the opinions of more of the community taken into account on this issue.

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