An Existential Triangle
Wednesday, June 14, 2017
AN EXISTENTIAL TRIANGLE: Three public meetings of profound importance to the future of Whatcom County collided this week. Two were held at the same time in different places. One concerned the largest single expenditure the county faces for the next several decades, a proposed new remote jail and justice warehouse with a price tag topping $120 million. The other, a delayed town hall meeting on issues related to affordable housing hastily rescheduled by the City of Bellingham. The third meeting, little noticed in the ruckus, adopts regional transportation planning through a planning horizon of 2040 for the Whatcom Council of Governments (WCOG).
Siloed and silenced from one another, barely communicating with one another’s aims or informed by one another’s data, the three nodes nevertheless form an existential triangle—social mobility, social equity, social justice. Within its center, public policy issues will play out for the county for well into the next century.
Alas for the City of Bellingham, its town hall meeting on housing affordability—a housing crisis that is affecting cities throughout the I-5 corridor—should have been held ten years ago, in the cold ashes of an economic crash and cratered housing market that might have established a floor and allowed the framework to be reset to renewed beneficial purpose. As the housing market has recovered, its attendant concerns have grown even more quickly nonrecoverable.
The housing crisis Bellingham faces is inevitable, given public policy commitments to firm urban boundaries and greenfield protections versus the chronic, choleric inability of housing suppliers to innovate and use a precious and dwindling land supply wisely. Bellingham’s attempts at infill have been dismally executed—to the understandable anger of neighbors—as throughout the city fine old modest homes have been razed for the lot value and in their place are erected massed monstrosities out of scale and character with the surrounding neighborhoods. On the altar of affordability, using those goals as rationale, $300,000 homes are knocked down and fed as $1.5 million edifices to Mammon.
According to city data, in 2016, 194 single-family permits were issued, an increase of 68 over the prior year. Single-family unit production has increased steadily from a low of 57 in 2009. Current levels match those seen just prior to the last recession. Meanwhile, multifamily permits, which include mixed-use units, dropped from levels seen in the prior two years. Duplexes and accessory units combined made up just 5 percent of new units in 2016.
“Both rents, and prices of for-sale housing, have risen strongly in Bellingham and Whatcom County in recent years,” city leaders admitted in their forum. “Such increases are similar to those in the state as a whole, and in other counties in the Puget Sound corridor. While local policies can affect affordability, many factors that influence local real estate prices are regional or even national. In addition, modest wage growth in the face of rising housing costs further reduces affordability.”
A median income renter would expend 34.7 percent of income on rent; to afford a one-bedroom home at fair market rent a median income renter would have to work roughly 69 hours per week to meet the recommended threshold of affordability, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. To its credit, the city’s housing forum did comment on the sorry state of income stagnation, which has essentially flatlined since the 1970s while rents have increased year upon year.
For a city like Bellingham in particular, which once prided itself on being a cheap place to live and therefore a magnet for the creative arts and creative lifestyle, it is an existential crisis. An entire cohort under the age of 35 struggles to make the city work for them—both in terms of wage employment and something so basic as an affordable and safe place to live—and are failing to make it work. It is a lost generation that in time would be our city council representatives, our mayors, our civic leaders. And frankly, the city doesn’t have a clue how to reach or represent them.
The town hall itself was spurred by a residential survey report released earlier this spring. The survey found housing insecurity and economic insecurity were among the top concerns of residents; however, the survey methodology admits its own failure to provide an adequate snapshot of who actually lives in Bellingham. An overwhelming 84 percent of survey respondents identified themselves as homeowners in a city where well above half of residents are renters; and nearly half reported residence here of more than two decades in a community where net migration accounts for roughly 70 percent of the area’s population growth.
The survey captured an elite cross-section—as did the town hall itself, with the bulk of submitted questions from older attendees arriving as concerns about conversion of existing neighborhoods or complaints about onerous regulations. A few people—too few to be truly representative of the concern—praised recent City Council efforts to at least study the barriers to those who rent, including income discrimination and access to public services. Comments received at the forum were measured, thoughtful and heartbreaking.
More tone deaf is the Whatcom Mobility 2040 study for regional transportation planning approved this week by the WCOG, which while impressive in data simply fails entirely to account for a generational shift in the car culture. Ultimately, the study is a melange of transportation projects proposed by the local jurisdictions—a wish list of the sort the state requires to consider matching funds, coordinated and staged so the wishes do not collide with one another, and informed (somewhat refreshingly, “fiscally constrained”) by a gloomy, defeated understanding that the state will help with very little of it.
The study makes broad forecasts about where growth will occur. In the most predictable near term it is more of the same “drive till you qualify” assumptions about the perverse, inverse relationship between where people must work versus where they might afford to live. It is ignorant to the reality that, as any auto dealership can tell you, the interest in car ownership (and attendant vehicle costs) has simply ceased to be the eager rite of passage for those under 30. Specific to Bellingham, the plan makes no effort to actually align transportation alternatives with where people who would seek those alternatives actually live and are likely to live.
There’s an old saying that failing to plan is planning to fail. Well, these meetings folded the whole of that in on itself.
It’s a dark future; and in their own ways each of the meetings this week confessed to it.