Seeking Affordability: Will Efforts by the City of Bellingham to Upzone (infill) Residential Zoned Areas Work?

A recent editorial article in the Northwest Citizen, by Dick Conoboy, has signaled the alarm to protect single-family zoned land within the City of Bellingham. At the heart of Mr. Conoboy’s argument is a study that shows infill does not reduce the costs of housing and that there is adequate land available to allow for more development already. Why should we care?  Because if our planners make the wrong decision, it will impact the future of where we live and if we or our children can afford to live here.

In an effort to secure more housing the City of Bellingham is considering changes to their urban, single-family and other residential zoned properties. The City of Bellingham seeks to shrink the size of minimum lot requirements to build new single-family housing and to allow for more Accessory Dwelling Units or ADU (think houses converted to include rental apartment / room) and Detached Accessory Dwelling Units or DADU. There is no question that there are not enough affordable, single-family homes available within the Bellingham city limits. This is the result of a vision, or plan, that is referred to as new-urbanism, although a more visual name would be “Stack ‘em and Pack ‘em.”

When the City of Bellingham and Whatcom County revised their Comprehensive Planning for Growth in 2016 and approved them, there were no additional areas dedicated for Urban Growth. Why? Because it is their intent to force all growth into the current urban lands within Whatcom County. Why? Because it is their belief that this is a better way to plan and manage growth. But, is it? Does it make life better and more affordable for the people who live within the city limits? The numbers do not prove that out and thus many young families who wish to live in an affordable, single-family home, search for affordable outside of city boundaries. The recent Hirst decision has made even that solution a fading possibility, unless the property has prior approval for water through a private-well, water association, PUD, or some other legal potable water. A family cannot live on a property without legal access to water and those properties that do have legal access to water will become in high-demand; which adds to the problem rather than easing the economic pressures of growth. The outcome of Hirst has pushed county planning departments to scramble for a fix and the future for young families seeking a rural lifestyle option will be financially unachievable.

There are visible signs of a lot of new multi-family units being built all over the City and it appears that the occupancy rates for this type of dwelling unit has begun to stabilize, but the cost savings have not been realized yet. It’s anyone’s guess when that will happen. These competing activities occur when we force infill in a city that is near its capacity for housing, which leads to land and property value increases within the city boundaries. Thus, the costs to the property owner increases and cost savings to the renter or condo owners are diminished. Add to this, the Amazon effect being felt across the State; there are a lot of people living within King, Pierce, Snohomish Counties and Others, who are seeking a better life elsewhere.

That elsewhere could be and should be Whatcom County and her cities. Available housing is not the only thing holding us back. A positive business atmosphere and the potential for growth for that new-business to locate here, hire here, and prosper has added to the negative economic pressures we face.  Without this factor added to the formula we have little hope to expect things to improve. Of course, Bellingham and our other Whatcom County cities could experience an event that forces a decline in property values and costs; a depression would do that.

Things that our local leaders and government agencies could do to help are: reduction in regulations and permitting costs, an escalation in permit approvals, stop tax shifting of property taxes, and stop increasing taxes by creation of these special taxing districts to squeeze more money out of the private sector. An increase in single-family homes and these other actions would stimulate growth and could lower property taxes and fees by increasing the number of people who pay into the public system. Also, allowing single family development on previously approved UGA areas in Bellingham and on non-farm land areas of the county.  Increased supply, land and housing availability, will lower prices. Without this we will likely continue to see costs increase which will likely lead to a much lower standard of living for everyone in our communities. You cannot squeeze blood from a turnip, and when you try to, that turnip eventually shrivels up and dies.

Yes, this is a simplified version of what has occurred and continues to occur. The answer is not so simple. What happens to our community if we fail to bring affordability back to Bellingham and Whatcom County? For far too long we have ignored the widening gap between income and cost of living or doing business to the average residents in our community. It is time to take the bull-by-the-horns and deal with it. We need more single-family housing allotted for in our growth planning. We need to put more infrastructure in place for future growth of housing and business. We need a stepped-up approach to business and job growth that will attract new business and help to keep the businesses that are already here, alive and well.

We didn’t get here in a day and it will take more than a day to fix this. The past leadership ignored this. The current leadership must not, for if they do, you the voter will need to take your woodsman-axe and vote for change.

~ Kris Halterman


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