The Missing Middle
Wednesday, August 16, 2017
THE MISSING MIDDLE: Two eddies converged into a stream at Bellingham City Council this week, each carrying the effluent that the City of Subdued Excitement is quickly becoming a place where few of common means can live.
“There’s affordable housing that is subsidized, and then there is what some people would call natural affordable housing,” Council member April Barker noted in her opening remarks at a special planning committee meeting. One problem is the latter is not being built.
The “missing middle” housing is the city’s term for a range of multi-unit or clustered housing types compatible in scale with single-family homes that help meet the growing demand for walkable urban living, planning consultants told Council. Examples include carriage houses, duplexes, triplexes, tiny homes, small lot homes, live/work units, and cottage housing. Missing middle housing provides the City of Bellingham with more housing options for community members across a range of incomes and lifestyles by filling the gap between apartments and single-family homes.
The effort intends to focus on “those who can’t afford the majority of what is being built in Bellingham right now, which is single-family homes,” explained Carrie Veldman, project manager for the RJ Group, an architecture, engineering and design firm. “Those are priced out of many first-time homebuyers’ price ranges.”
Unanswered is the question of why so much construction effort in Bellingham is being invested in homes average incomes, average residents of Bellingham, cannot afford. The stopgap appears to be a variety of specialty housing forms—townhomes, shared court housing, accessory dwelling units on other properties and so on. Yet even among these—and the examples are not many—the most affordable of these recently built specialty units sold for $339,000. Which again begs the question of why so many builders are incapable or disinterested in building homes median incomes can afford.
If we search the market for clues, we might conclude that there is enough cash to rake in from the 2 percent annual growth entering the community from elsewhere and with outside money to spend, and that most builders are financially satisfied to cater exclusively to that, leaving the bulk of the community scrambling for an affordable home.
The imbalance is having an effect on public schools, an emergent demographic, and it is not pretty:
“School districts,” Barker noted, “have been redrawing their boundaries for two reasons. One is we’ve had a lot of growth to the north side, which has increased class sizes immensely, and we don’t have enough room in those schools currently for the growth that’s happening. We’ve also recognized that those schools don’t have a great balance of social and economic diversity.”
Lack of economic diversity in neighborhoods is reflected in neighborhood schools. Currently about 40 percent of students are living at or below the poverty line, Bellingham School District data suggests. Few schools adequately reflect that demographic, with some elementary schools serving 80 percent students experiencing poverty and others with fewer than 20 percent, illustrating a growing stratification of incomes.
The other eddy arrived in the form of an economic survey produced by the Western Washington University Center for Economic and Business Research. Mayor Kelli Linville had requested the study as an aid to help determine whether the city should agree to or deny the request of Lummi Nation to receive city water for an economic development project they’ve planned north of the city. Basically, the city needs to extend about 300 feet of existing water line at a cost the tribe would absorb as a utility customer. Frankly, the study was misplaced for that purpose—the request of a local municipal government for a cooperative agreement to purchase water should rightly be examined on its own merits, the goodwill of governments working together for common cause, rather than a zero-sum calculation of what such agreements might cost the city in taxable revenues—and failed to deliver meaningful data that might drive a policy decision on water service. The study did, however, produce a fascinating snapshot of the economic health of the city in retail—the sector most dependable for job growth.
The picture is that retail space in Whatcom County appears to be slightly overbuilt for emergent trends.
“While there is a ‘retail gap’ in the county outside of the City of Bellingham, there is a surplus of retail in the county as a whole,” the report authors confess. “We do not view the county beyond the City of Bellingham to be a well-defined trade area, where someone can look at the trade gap and conclude additional retail spaces can be readily supported without consideration for the adjacent areas.
“We note,” CEBR report authors continued, “that while the amount of online sales is currently still small, it is growing and does matter. ...American retail is struggling at the macro level. There have been significant store closures—many of these offered what would be considered commodity items which are easily ordered online. Some businesses have flourished—many of these offer unique experiences to their customer along with the tangible items. Retailers are changing where they find profits.”
While not submitted or intended as commentary predicament of rising income inequality and economic insecurity, the report nevertheless does suggest that the easy days of living wages are growing uneasy in Bellingham. That, coupled with a housing market that is systemically incapable of providing “natural” affordable housing, projects a dark future for vibrant public life and diversified lifestyles. The “Missing Middle” may very well be the middle class.