The Gristle

Home Run

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.

Past Columns
Too Little, Too Late

September 19, 2018

Open Secret Disclosed

September 12, 2018

Consent of the Governed

September 5, 2018

Let the People Decide

August 29, 2018

3-in-1 Oil

August 22, 2018

A Deeper Dive

August 15, 2018

Blue Wave Stalls Offshore

August 8, 2018

Mountains of Our Efforts

August 1, 2018

Vote

July 25, 2018

Trust Is Reciprocal

July 18, 2018

Pressure in the Bottle

July 11, 2018

Sharing the Pain

July 4, 2018

A Supreme Shifting

June 27, 2018

The Costs of Failure

June 6, 2018

Thumb on the Scales

May 30, 2018

Bungle in the Jungle?

May 23, 2018

Heating Up

May 16, 2018

State of the County

May 2, 2018

Events
Today
Eat Local Month

10:00am|Whatcom County

Vendovi Tours

10:00am|Vendovi Island

Boating Center Open

10:00am|Community Boating Center

Bard on the Beach

12:00pm|Vanier Park

La Cage Aux Folles

7:30pm|Bellingham Theatre Guild

The Wind in the Willows

7:30pm|Claire vg Thomas Theatre

Sin & Gin Tours

7:00pm|Downtown Bellingham, historic Fairhaven

Rabbit Ride

8:00am|Fairhaven Bicycle

Brunch on the Bay

10:00am|Bellingham Cruise Terminal

Edison Farmers Market

10:00am|Edison Granary

Banned Books Week

10:30am

Langar in Lynden

11:00am|Guru Nanak Gursikh Gurdwara

Brunch and Learn

11:00am|Ciao Thyme

Your Vote Counts! Block Party

12:00pm|Depot Market Square

Audubon at the Museum

1:30pm|Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall

South Side Stories

2:00pm|Historic Fairhaven

Trivia Time

3:30pm|Boundary Bay Brewery

Waiting for the Whales

4:00pm|Village Books

Not-Creepy Gathering for People Who Are Single

6:00pm|Boundary Bay Brewery

Moon Walk

6:30pm

Trove Web
Tomorrow
Eat Local Month

10:00am|Whatcom County

Vendovi Tours

10:00am|Vendovi Island

Boating Center Open

10:00am|Community Boating Center

Bard on the Beach

12:00pm|Vanier Park

Banned Books Week

10:30am

Baker Lake Cleanup Signup Deadline

8:00am|Baker Lake

Wheelchair Gangball

3:30pm|Bloedel Donovan

Monday Night Pizza

5:30pm|Ciao Thyme Commons

Books on Tap

6:30pm|El Agave 2

Open Mic Night

7:00pm|Village Books

Guffawingham

9:00pm|Firefly Lounge

Village Books Acrobat
Tuesday
Eat Local Month

10:00am|Whatcom County

Boating Center Open

10:00am|Community Boating Center

Bard on the Beach

12:00pm|Vanier Park

Banned Books Week

10:30am

Rainbow Reads Book Club

3:00pm| Ferndale Library

All-Paces Run

6:00pm|Fairhaven Runners

Bellingham Reads

6:30pm|Bellingham Public Library

Skagit Folk Dancers

7:00pm|Bayview Civic Hall

Seabird Struggles

7:00pm|Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall

Beginning Square Dance Lessons

7:00pm|Ten Mile Grange

Warlbers and Woodpeckers

7:00pm|Village Books

Comedy Open Mic

7:30pm|Shakedown

see our complete calendar »

Trove Web Village Books Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1 Acrobat