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Don’t Confuse Housing Affordability with Housing Choice

We have an opportunity to assure affordable housing in Bellingham; let’s not squander it!

We have an opportunity to assure affordable housing in Bellingham; let’s not squander it!

[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. 

How many DADU’s were approved? 154. 

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.

Comments by Readers

Geoff Middaugh

Oct 14, 2021

Excellent article, and clarification.  Thank you.  I hope the council is listening…

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Satpal Sidhu

Oct 14, 2021

Thanks Scott for writing this piece. Of course unincoporated areas need little different approach than the Cities. I fully agree that ALL Cities and County should work with developer / builder community (who are willing to talk) that we develop policies to that every new development proposal should have certain minimum element of “permanently affordable housing”. I firmly belive this is very much doable and can work economically also.

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Satpal Sidhu

Oct 14, 2021

Thanks Scott for writing this piece. Of course unincoporated areas need little different approach than the Cities. I fully agree that ALL Cities and County should work with developer / builder community (who are willing to talk) that we develop policies to that every new development proposal should have certain minimum element of “permanently affordable housing”. I firmly belive this is very much doable and can work economically also.

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Scott Jones

Oct 14, 2021

For those who want to hear Rick Seplar’s recognition that its time to require Affordable Housing with new developments, they can see it here.

https://meetings.cob.org/Meetings/ViewMeeting?id=2581&doctype=1

3:17:00 for several minutes after.

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Michael Chiavario

Oct 14, 2021

 I agree with your last point, Scott ,about minimum requirements for permanently affordable homes in new developments.

I don’t agree that it was necessary or accurate for you to malign ADU advocates in your selective memory of the 2018 ADU fight. There were two main pushes in the struggle for the ordinance: affordability AND density. The owner occupancy requirement was included in the ordinance to prevent absentee landlords from exploiting the density gift of a legal ADU from becoming a cash cow for them that would push up prices for homes in the neighborhoods. As one of those who helped push for the current ADU ordinance, I never thought that it would make ADU’s overall affordable without concomitant incentives, fee and permit reductions, and other assistance to create affordable ADU’s.I  knew that it was just a first step.

In your section on Intended density in Multi-family homes you ask, “Where were the housing choice advocates back then?” as if we had dissapppeared and did not support the moratorium. Your piece reads as if you are the only moral actor in home affordability in town. Not only do I and other affrodability advocates support the moratorium, but many of us support more housing choice as well as much more permanent home affordability in every neighborhood - not just a low income high rise complex on the edge of single detached neighborhood zones, but scattered multi home buildings of affordable homes throughout the city.

I don’t know a single housing affordability advocate who ‘went quiet’, as you allege, after the ADU ordinance went in to effect. I certainly didn’t. I have been pushing to revise the ADU ordinance from the time that it originally passed. That revision proess is now in the stage of Planning Commission review. Anyone can participate in that process. Be assured that many housing advocates are and will participate in that process and other local and state efforts to create enough permanently affordable homes in EVERY NEIGHBORHOOD to serve the actual needs of our community. We need to eliminate policies and practices that only allow working class and poor folks to live in certain parts of town(or be pushed out of town altogether). That will ultimately require eliminating at least half of the market based private equity homes and turn them into community equity homes like Trust homes and Co-ops.

 

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Scott Jones

Oct 14, 2021

Lets requote Michael Chiavario’s last sentance.
“That will ultimately require eliminating at least half of the market based private equity homes and turn them into community equity homes like Trust homes and Co-ops.
OMG


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Michael Chiavario

Oct 14, 2021

Yes, As Scott Jones correctly pointed out in his article, when someone pays more than 30% of their household income for rent or mortgage, they are considered to be cost burdened by an ‘unaffordable’ monthly payment. So since over 50% of Bellingham residents fall into this category, we wouldn’t want the needed 50% of our housing stock to fall into the affordable category because, well, OMG!

People from out of town have a right to bring their $ to town and continue to inflate the cost of homes and make it increasingly unnaffordable for working people to live here, because if we tried to remove those ‘investment opportunities’ that would just be, OMG!

We need to just accept that the current market system of housing is based on historical and current class and racial oppression because God must have made it that way for some reason and if we tried to change that, well, OMG!

We definitely shouldn’t look at examples of more equitable systems of housing that exist in places like Vienna, Zurich, England, Germany, Holland, Denmark because we don’t do that here in America, because, well, we’re Americans. OMG.

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Scott Jones

Oct 15, 2021

Michael,  you continue to prove my point that you focus on housing choice for the middle class. Your problems described are just that, and as mentioned a problem in it’s own right.

It is not the problem of affordable housing for those most in need, though. Once these two are separated, you will find a community supporting both. 

If you continue to fight for them as one, no solutions will come.

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Michael Chiavario

Oct 15, 2021

Scott I believe that I clearly outlined my solution for workforce(not Middle class)housing succinctly in my quote that you entered above followed by your snarky ‘OMG!’ I enjoyed being snarky back at you.

Housing for those most in need? You deduce that I am fighting for them as one? Yes, I guess I am. Long term solution to the problem of housing unaffordability will only be achieved when our system of commodified private equity market housing is largely replaced by community equity home ownership and permanently affordable rentals and subsidized homes for the very poor. I choose to focus most of my work on permanently affordable community equity ownership through the Kulshan Comunity Land Trust. I also participate the Whatcom Housing Alliance and communicate with local elected representatives and participate in some Planning Comission and Port meetings. I also helped build the tiny home Unity village in Fairhaven that houses very poor folks during their transition to more permanent homes - I find it a sad testament of our corrupt system that we relegate people to tiny boxes next to a stinky sewage plant, but it is much better than a tent. I am also building an affordable apartment(ADU) in my own home - I am able to make it affordable because I am doing most of the labor myself with the help of volunteers.

I find that there is lots of community support for both tiny homes, subsidized housing, and land trust homes, so I don’t understand what you mean when you imply that my approach will not get ‘community support’. Might it be that you really mean YOUR support? Might you be concerned that affordable housing is built in multi zones and not your comfortable middle class neighborhood of single detached homes? If I am wrong about these suppositions, please let me and the readers know. I wouldn’t want to mischaracterize your intentions or positions in the same way that you mischaracterized the positions and intentions of local housing activists in your article above.

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