Wednesday, May 9, 2018
HOME RUN: In a year punctuated with a significant increase in local property tax to meet the state requirement to fully fund basic education, Bellingham City Council this week fretted over renewing the Home Fund on the November ballot. Yet few local taxes have had a more profound impact, or produced greater immediate success, on a matter of the public urgency than the Home Fund.
Enacted by city voters in 2012, the Bellingham Home Found generates about $3 million per year through a dedicated property tax. For every $1 raised by the Home Fund levy, an average of $8 of other private and public funding is leveraged for housing affordability initiatives.
That’s helped enable the addition of 405 completed affordable housing units and another 183 units that are under contract to be built. At a levy rate of up to .36 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, the renewed Home Fund could generate up to $4 million for affordable housing for the 10-year duration of the levy.
The levy is set to sunset in 2019, but the mayor proposes placing an update on the project this year to keep in place uninterrupted the funding for constructions that are underway and for others that are planned. If the levy fails, those projects stall or die.
“It has to pass, because it must pass. Because without it, we don’t have a lot of options,” Council member Gene Knutson commented.
But—the question is well worth asking—is $4 million enough? And of all the efforts large and small, dramatic and modest, is $4 million the best target voters can aim toward to address what’s widely understood as the city’s existential crisis?
In other words, given sufficient public support, might the Home Fund be empowered to do more?
In 2017, the City of Bellingham surveyed residents about critical issues facing the community. Overwhelmingly, residents cited housing affordability and homelessness (and their adjunct, economic insecurity) as the city’s most pressing concerns.
Currently, the the Bellingham Housing Authority—tasked with providing housing for low-income households—reports a waiting list of as many as 1,181 households waiting to receive assistance. The wait time for placement for those on the list is nearly a year.
Over the term of the proposed levy, the city projects the construction of 580 affordable homes and rental assistance for 3,000 low-income households. Largely unaddressed, though, is the large cohort of younger, lower-income working-class households that do not qualify for public assistance housing, and yet their incomes are increasingly gobbled up by rising rents. And no one is building new housing for this so-called “gig economy.”
“The composition of Bellingham’s population today is not well matched to our existing housing stock,” staff admitted in the update to the Consolidated Plan approved by Council this week, a document required to qualify for future block grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for community development and affordable housing needs.
“Of all the housing units in Bellingham,” planning staff reported, “46 percent have three or more bedrooms, while the average number of people per housing unit is 2.17.
“The average family size and number of persons per household has steadily declined over time, and therefore has increased demand for smaller units like one-bedroom and studio apartments,” staff continued. “Today only 16 percent of housing units have one bedroom. Coupled with the slowdown in housing production that has not kept pace with population growth in general, this has resulted in a very low rental vacancy rate (estimated at 1.79 percent) and rapidly rising rents.
“Even as population growth continued, the development of new housing units slowed significantly between 2007 and 2013 during the Great Recession,” staff noted. “While the production of new units has accelerated since 2013, this has not yet alleviated preexisting demand or affordability challenges. For example, the population has risen by 3,140 since 2015 to a total of 86,720 residents. Meanwhile, there were 1,267 new units permitted in 2015 and 2016 combined.”
This is a problem that extends well beyond the city limits and affects Whatcom County as a whole, driving up rents and home prices, creating a collision with stagnant wages and fixed incomes..
The solution, Mayor Kelli Liville suggests, would be a countywide Home Fund levy that could generate a much larger pool of resources of all county communities. But there is little hope of the larger county picking up that task any time soon.
“There are four basic principles that motivate us to act in support of the Home Fund,” Greg Winter, executive director of the Opportunity Council, outlined to Council. “Everyone should be able to live in a safe, decent, affordable home. it should be possible for low-wage workers, veterans, senior citizens and people with disabilities to afford housing and still have enough money for the basics like groceries and child care. Children deserve a chance to succeed in school and in life, which all begins with their family being able to afford a decent place to live. And finally, it’s better for society, the environment and families if people can afford to live close to where they work.
“We can add other motivations, including the fact that the city has determined through surveying its residents that housing and homelessness are top priorities for action,” Winter said, citing the enormous deliverable success of the levy to date, exceeding its original goals, as evidence it should be renewed.
It should be renewed. But the Council should welcome a discussion that it might do even more.