[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.]
Recently, I was reminded of a trip my wife and I took to the subdued coastal town of Santa Barbara, California. Struck by the similarities to Bellingham, I wrote an article in NW Citizen cautioning, “…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."
I was and remain concerned about housing affordability for a couple of reasons. First, I love living in Bellingham and hope many people can share the experience. Second, when working people cannot afford housing, everyone is worse off.
The relationship between working wages and the cost of housing is a critical measure for a healthy housing market. This metric was pushing the limits of a healthy range in 2017, so it was the last year I purchased development property in Bellingham. At that time, house prices were roughly six times the average annual income of a Bellingham household. Since 2017 working people in Bellingham experienced a 20% increase in wages, which failed to keep pace with a staggering 60% growth in home prices. If this trend continues, Bellingham will be a wonderful place to live if you have a lot of money. For everyone else, there will be difficult tradeoffs.
While in Santa Barbara, a conversation with an Uber driver imparted a prescient warning. As a single dad, working full-time managing a restaurant and driving for Uber on nights and weekends, his seventy-hour work week afforded him a rented house near his daughter's school. To help offset his monthly rent of $5,000, he sub-leased a room to a coworker.
Curious about what he liked to do for recreation, I imagined something phenomenal, perhaps early morning surfing with his daughter before school. I had to ask. His response was both touching and tragic. He told me that on the occasions he took time off work, he liked to take his daughter to the foothills of the Santa Ynez mountains to see the meadows of wildflowers.
My thoughts turned to Thoreau’s account of the farmer endeavoring to solve the problem of livelihood using a formula more complicated than the problem itself. Enjoying wildflowers with your daughter should not require struggling in overpriced housing markets such as Santa Barbara or Bellingham.
We need renewed vigor in public debate about the importance of housing policy and its impact on our economic well-being. Without it, Bellingham risks losing workforce talent because it will no longer be worth the price of admission.
If Bellingham is to be a place for all to thrive, we need to stop defending existing conditions and start discovering new possibilities.
Comments by Readers
Dick ConoboyMar 15, 2023
Rigid thinking harms us all and opening one’s mind to possibilities is not easy given the acculturation we suffer from and that begins our first day on earth. Mindful listening requires effort and without mindful listening, possibilities are hidden.
On a more practical level with respect to housing, its availability and affordability, public banking can open new doors to approach the problem. You no doubt have read my articles on that topic here on NWCitizen. Public banking straddles political party lines with benefits to business and to the citizenry. It is truly a win-win.
Randy PettyMar 15, 2023
I think you have to ask at what level of building do you make the area no longer desirable?
Dick ConoboyMar 15, 2023
When I was born in 1943 there were 2.5 billion people on earth. The number is now 8 billion.
That might provide a hint regarding what the problem is.
Garrett O’BrienMar 15, 2023
Several years ago, I attended a presentation by Senator Bob Hasegawa where he talked about his efforts to enact public banking in Washington. It was interesting to hear the concerns and questions people had about the concept of a public bank.
A reasonable concern is the propensity of public institutions to be abused by politicians seeking to advance pet projects and ideological goals. How would public banking be immune to such abuse?
This question presupposes that our so-called private banking system is immune to political influence and favoritism, which is preposterous especially considering the recent bailouts of Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank.
The Dodd-Frank legislation enacted after the Global Financial Crisis was supposed to protect taxpayers from being forced to fund bank bailouts and ensure bank risk remained the responsibility of bank shareholders. It is difficult not to be cynical about the current banking system when former congressman Barney Frank (co-sponsor of Dodd-Frank) is a board member of the failed Signature Bank currently receiving a taxpayer funded bail out.
Our current banking system is not a properly functioning market system and should not be defended as such. Without allowing banks to fail one of capitalisms greatest virtues of “creative destruction” is thwarted and moral hazard compounds. The bad outcomes are borne by the taxpayer without any prospect for gain.
Public banking can provide an excellent alternative to our current banking system and can compete with private banks based on the merit of services rendered. North Dakota has run a successful public bank for many years and provides an excellent example of how it can work well.
Garrett O’BrienMar 15, 2023
Population growth and the densification of our city does present challenges. In my view, the type of housing being buillt is more concerning than the quantitiy. According to city of Bellingham permit data, over the past couple of years the majority of housing being built is multi-family apartments.
The lack of supply of single-family houses and townhomes puts considerble upward pressure on prices. A resonable expansion of our urban growth boundaries and selective rezones of industrial and other underutilized land would be a good place to encourage these desired housing types.
Randy PettyMar 15, 2023
I’m not unsympathetic to the high cost of housing, but some decisions will lead to the wildflowers being paved over. Without getting in too deep, currently many corporate leaders make it abundantly clear that they are against regulation and bailouts—————- unless it benefits their company. Then they’re all for it.
I don’t think we’re going to see “pure capitalism.” In fact, I don’t think it’s ever existed since cooperating ( or colluding) tends to shield companies from the harsh realities of absolute “free enterprise.”
Public banks might be a good idea. I’d rather see investors/lenders take a haircut than unsuspecting depositors.
Garrett O’BrienMar 15, 2023
Valid points. Thank you.
Carol FollettMar 17, 2023
We have two questions we need to answer as we discuss affordable housing:
Carol FollettMar 17, 2023
Garrett O’BrienMar 18, 2023
You posed some excellent questions that deserve consideration.
I agree that Kulshan Community Land Trust is a valuable asset for our community—I would like to see them build more homes. I think the land acquisition is a constraint to their growth, and the city of Bellingham could do more to support KCLT.
I would like to see the city of Bellingham lead a pilot project to re-zone the city-owned property located at the corner of Woburn and Lakeway (formerly clean green) and partner with KCLT to build cottage housing and/or townhomes.
This project is feasible and would provide affordable homeownership opportunities for working people. There are many upsides to a project like this including opportunities to build out WTA infrastructure since it is located on a high-frequency route and close to job centers. The additional families in the neighborhood would have walkable trail access to Civic Field, Arne Hanna, and the Sportsplex.
I have identified several other areas in town where city-owned land resources are underutilized and could be deployed in public-private partnerships to build quality and diverse housing types.
Thank you for your comments, and I will look into the Garden City Movement you mentioned.
Carol FollettMar 18, 2023
I agree, Garrett, a blend of public and private funds could be used to create housing communities in underutilized areas compatible environmentally. I am thinking of the wasted space of the former JC Penney’s building downtown. It could be torn down and the space could become cohousing (there are many examples of this in other countries).
We need to not limit ourselves to housing for working families, but include potential workers, retired workers, and those who cannot work. Every person deserves a decent, affordable place to live. A mixed community is interesting, healthy, and rewarding.
I would like to see more education, information, and discussion in our city about our options before we vote to change zoning laws.
I often sense we have too narrow an idea of who the “stakeholders” are in this issue.
Carol FollettMar 20, 2023
One more note, Garrett. It is a wonderful thing to have the skills and knowledge to build homes. However, my admiration of this is tempered by the fact that I am one of billions of people who live with the results of developers’ designs (mostly cooperations whose goal is to maximize profits and care little about those that must live with their decisions) of my environment. What we experience where we live, work, shop, and commute has been put upon us for the financial profit of others who do not have to live in or with their work. In our current system, our choice is limited by income.
I am not only thinking of how ugly, apartment blocks are depressing to look at as we go by them, but they break my heart to think of people, especially children, living in them without yards and gardens. I also think about how so much of their money is sucked up to pay to live in a box, that they do not have disposable income to spread in our community for enjoyment like eating out and shopping for locally produced items at locally owned restaurants and shops. But that is another subject for another day.
I want to share this paper with you:
How we live influences how we think, feel, and act. The design of our homes and neighbourhoods are subconscious manipulations of our lives. Those of us who live paycheck to paycheck, or retirement check, or unemployment check, or aid check to check are not able to exercise real “choice.”
As I said, I am not an architect, but I dream of housing that can have a second floor without stairs (some kind of ramping), is designed with self-home-repair in mind (make plumbing easier to access and fix), keep lighting within reach to clean and replace bulbs, make bath areas easier to clean, keep children and pets in mind (dogs and cats are good for mental health). Build as though every user is handicapped because we are all only temporarily, completely able-bodied.
Please do not put every house in a line! Vary their look and direction. Homes should get the maximum daylight in their living spaces and have land (some shared with neighbours is good for maximizing the aesthetics and use).
I understand this is more difficult and expensive than following the well trod path of all-in-a -line, mass assembly standards that are in place now. These methods maximise monetary profits, but not human and social health. Making a living does not mean making profits, right? One can earn a salary working with a non profit group.
I am afraid too many in our society think it is good “to make a killing” on the market. I prefer that we all make a living.❤️
Satpal SidhuMar 21, 2023
Hi All, I have another perspective. Housing has become primarily an investment vehicle and living in the houses is an ancilliary use. If we have 30-40% housing in every community built for living and not financial speculation, the upward pressure on prices can be slowed down. Also the corporations are investing heavily into short term renatls, and people already owning homes have the capacity to buy 2,3 or more homes as investment. What about the starting families, people who do not own homes already? It is simplistic that just land use policy or density can solve this issue at local level. We must address the root causes, which need to be addressed with policy chnages starting at Federal level. Yes, the labd use and density are also important. May be a natioanal Housing Fund to allow zero to low rate mortgages for qualified buyers, but this should not result in first time buyers to huge profit. Remeber hosues are for living not making money.
Garrett O’BrienMar 21, 2023
Thank you for the link to Dalia Al-Tarazi’s thesis paper, it will take some time to read, but I gave it a review this morning and find it compelling. I support your critique of the housing types being built and the lack of design imagination. I would like to suggest that part of the problem is overly prescriptive design standards and development codes that are rigidly enforced by the city of Bellingham without consideration of site-specific nuance and creative design. Many of these code deficiencies are well-known to staff working in the Planning Department, but past Planning Directors have lacked the energy or will to remedy them. I accept that there are other factors impacting the built environment that produce sub-optimal outcomes, my tendency is to look for tangible and incremental improvements that can be made within the current system while keeping an open mind to some of the broader considerations that you commented on. Thank you for your engagement.
Garrett O’BrienMar 21, 2023
Thank you for sharing your perspective and I agree that housing has become overly financialized to the detriment of most people. We may or may not agree on the role government has played in creating the problem. In my view, there is nothing inherently wrong with building housing for profit or investing in real estate. What is wrong is the federal government’s blanket warranty of all mortgage-backed securities that are originated by Wall Street. I am skeptical of relying on policy changes at the federal level when they are counterparty to Wall Street excess. Nearly all conventional home mortgages are explicitly guaranteed by the federal government through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac when they securitize the mortgages and sell them to investors. This reckless assumption of risk has encouraged the financialization of the housing market, attracted corporate and hedge fund investment, and pushed housing prices higher. You are correct that there are complicated factors including bad policies at the federal level that contribute to our housing problems, but considering our greatest ability to affect change is at the local level I think energy is best invested here on issues we can control.
Christopher S HudsonMar 22, 2023
Regarding affecting change at the local level and issues we can control… I’m all for loosening some aspects of ADU’s, except for the one that requires the owner of the ADU to reside in the main home or the ADU… otherwise, more absentee landlordism. Also, is there one iota of evidence from any town or city in USA that “infill” has helped stabilize or lower RE prices? Or that greenlighting apartment complexes with incomplete parking has made Bellingham more affordable? Or that removing single family zoning anywhere has helped affordability?
Garrett O’BrienMar 22, 2023
I agree the owner-occupied provision is an essential component of the ADU ordinance. I also think the city of Bellingham Planning Commission should hold regular public hearings to assess the impacts of newly built ADUs on existing neighborhoods and make appropriate recommendations to City Council. You raise valid concerns regarding the perceived relationship between density and affordability, and I think it would be difficult to provide data that supports claims of a positive correlation.
Recognizing the dire need for affordable housing we elected to tax ourselves to fund the Bellingham Home Levy, but our current approach of packing people into apartment buildings falls short of the vision of a thriving community where people have the opportunities for home ownership and are not spending the majority of their income on housing.
Carol FollettMar 24, 2023
Thank you for the added information and views, Satpal, Christopher, and Garrett.
I would like to know more about our Federal regulations that hender our ability to build better, affordable homes, Garrett. I would also like to have greater knowledge of the financial processes you mentioned that put all of us in harm’s way as victim’s of corporate greed. Education empowers us.
I would also like to discuss a bit more about the idea of profit and essential needs for individuals and communities. Like so many words in our English vocabulary, “profit” is vague. I am very fond of the word “homeostasis.” We need to keep our balance for our health, our economic health, our personal and interpersonal, community, and our physical and psychological health.
We seperate and specialise to such an extent, we forget that every aspect of our lives is part of one, intertwined “ecosystem.” I would like to join with you to follow these connections as they relate to our the built environments in which we live.
How many we constructively continue this conversation and exchange of information?
Satpal SidhuMar 24, 2023
I appreciate this constructive discussion thread on the housing. I would like to re-empasize, that I am not advocating that for-profit housing is flawed, but the aspect that housing should primarily be for living must be considered as long term strategy in every community. Untill this aspect is addressed, the local government by themselves do not have the financial capacity to compete with market priced housing for lower 25% income bracket of our population. Some policy pathway needs to be created for “affordable forever” housing to become significant segment of total housing continuum ( I venture to say like 30-35%). Any community with 30-35% affordable housing segment (not speculative), would work as counter balance to skyhigh home prices and rents. Our state needs more than million new homes in next 20 years, and imagine if all the avialable housing land is tied up in market price housing, what would we leave for our next generations. we may even not be able to build million additional homes in 20 years. A boom and bust cycles are not good for our economy and soceity’s wellbeing.
Garrett O’BrienMar 26, 2023
Thank you for all the engagement. I think one of the best resources regarding the complexities of the mortgage securitization market would be former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s book, “On The Brink.”
Garrett O’BrienMar 26, 2023
I believe nonprofits should play a more prominent role in affordable homeownership going forward. One of the most important tools that local governments can use to help support nonprofits and land trusts is to rewrite zoning ordinances to provide significant density bonuses to operators who covenant to build the affordable housing you described. This approach would certainly require close and collaborative cooperation between the Whatcom county government and the City of Bellingham government as they each hold jurisdiction over different aspects of our county’s comprehensive growth plan. I hope this cooperation can occur more robustly in the years ahead.