The Gristle

Pressure in the Bottle

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

PRESSURE IN THE BOTTLE: In the brief years since the putative beginning of economic recovery, median rents have risen in Whatcom County by more than 22 percent—half of that within the past 48 months. Since 2009, rents for a one-bedroom home in Bellingham have risen as much as 40 percent. Low incomes in the same period have risen by only 3 percent. The volatile mixture of basic housing costs versus stagnant incomes creates enormous growing pressure on a closed bottle that cannot be sustained, and unless relieved spills into the community in many catastrophic ways. The formula is well-understood: In Washington, every $100 per month increase in rents severs 2,900 lower-income people from the security of their homes.

In their annual report to Whatcom County Council this week, the criminal justice task force included a sidebar that outlined the problem—for surely nothing influences incidence of crime more than people driven to extraordinary lengths by desperate circumstances:

“Since 2005, the population in Washington state has grown by 19 percent, yet the supply of housing units only grew by 14 percent. This mismatch of growth translates to a shortfall of at least 118,000 housing units, representing a statewide shortfall of about 4 percent in total inventory of housing units of all types, private and subsidized,” the Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force included in their report, contributing to rising social costs. “The lack of stable housing disrupts a person’s engagement in necessary behavioral health treatment services.

“Individuals who are living in safe and stable housing are more likely to engage in treatment and supportive services, thereby promoting recovery from addiction. Affordable and accessible housing,” task force members noted, “is also critical to reducing involvement with the criminal justice system.

“The mismatch in housing supply and demand shows up in the rental vacancy rate. According to the U.S. Census Bureau quarterly vacancy and home ownership rates report, the state of Washington ranked #50, the worst in the nation, for tight vacancy rates as of the fourth quarter of 2017. Moreover, according to a study of the Washington State Department of Commerce, Whatcom County ranked worst in the state, with a 1.8 percent vacancy rate. Finally, Whatcom County has the nation’s eighth-highest rate of house price appreciation at 12.21 percent in 2017.”

A report focused on criminal justice is at glance an odd place to express alarming HUD statistics; but Council had heard those HUD statistics before—when they met last month as the County Health Board, another unlikely setting until you realize that 30 percent of the displaced homeless community suffers from mental health issues, 60 percent suffer from substance abuse.

The rupture and spillage continues into land-use planning, as this week County Council continued to massage their requirements for temporary tent encampments and alternative homeless housing structures, including tiny homes.

Council enacted a temporary ordinance setting regulations for large tent encampments in the unincorporated county on June 19, but their work really needs to be understood in the larger context of trying to coordinate county land-use policy with policy established by the incorporated City of Bellingham earlier this spring.

State law allows religious organizations to offer their property to host temporary encampments that provide shelter for homeless; however, state law is silent about whether other nonprofits that own or control land may also do so. And state law makes cumbersome some issues (like fencing and lighting) that county and city officials consider trivial and perhaps an impediment for nonprofits that wish to volunteer to be part of the solutions.

Indeed, the organization and volunteers of HomesNOW! have been pushing policymakers for months to approve a pilot project for tiny homes. Their main request is for land on which to build these 10-by-10-foot structures. Each tiny home will cost about $3,500, and the nonprofit has already secured financing to begin building.

Council’s work in permitting this project is part of the widening understanding that homelessness is a county problem that manifests most visibly in cities, where there are services people without homes seek and need. And the widening understanding that housing insecurity carries consequences that spill into many public sectors, some of which can only be addressed at the county level.

Welcome as this work is—and welcome as hundreds of tents and tiny homes and soup kitchens must be—it’s stopgap to a spiraling problem, and a problem for which our usual remedies of capital and markets and private lending cause more suffering than cure. For certainly what’s happening is one driving sliver of our economy has fully recovered (the tippy top), while the vast bottom of our economy has not recovered. And cannot recover. And will not recover without aid.

Among their recommendations, the criminal justice task force adds, “a state statute allows a county to put a ballot measure before the public to increase the local sales tax by one-tenth of 1 percent and dedicate the additional funds to housing and supportive services.”

This is of course an instrument similar to the Bellingham Home Fund, on city ballots for renewal this November. The Home Fund is, rather, a small property tax levy to create a local housing trust fund, which—enacted on a countywide scale—would generate many millions of dollars for a variety of purposes with the underlying recognition that the solution to housing insecurity is secure housing.

Both answer some near-term problems; and are something our county can do to address the pressure of a rapaciousness that threatens to shatter our country. To address the actual rapaciousness itself will require some additional, national soul searching.

Alan Doyle
Past Columns
The Raucous Caucus

April 17, 2019

Dragged

April 10, 2019

Edge City

April 3, 2019

Fixing the Fix

March 27, 2019

Halfway Houses

March 20, 2019

New Directions

March 13, 2019

Fire and Ice

March 6, 2019

The Big Short

February 27, 2019

Marina Lacuna

February 20, 2019

New Bites at the Apple

February 13, 2019

Coal Folds

February 6, 2019

Refocusing the Narrative

January 29, 2019

Old Town, Old Story

January 23, 2019

Ranker Unanchored

January 16, 2019

‘Alternative Methods’

January 9, 2019

Top Stories, 2018

January 2, 2019

Et Tu, #MeToo

December 26, 2018

Turn That Corner

December 19, 2018

Events
Today
Skagit Valley Tulip Festival

10:00am|Skagit Valley

Essence of Bellingham Photo Competition

10:00am|Whatcom County

Unstable by Design

7:30pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

Silent Sky

7:30pm|Anacortes Community Theatre

Tulip Festival Street Fair

10:00am|Downtown Mount Vernon

Spring Book Sale

10:00am|Fire Station #1

Bellingham Beer Week

12:00pm|Throughout Bellingham

Genre Legends, Hot Dogs

7:30pm|Upfront Theatre

Buffett Beach Bash

7:30pm|Anacortes Port Transit Shed

The Coronation of Poppea

7:30pm|Performing Arts Center Mainstage

Tulip Pedal Bike Ride

7:30am|La Conner Elementary School

Pancake Breakfast

8:00am|Ferndale Senior Center

COB Earth Day Work Party

9:00am|Fairhaven Park

Fun with the Fuzz

9:00am|Bellingham Police Department

Bellingham Bay Bocce Tournament

9:30am|Bellingham Sportsplex

Wild Things

9:30am|Stimpson Family Nature Reserve

Bellingham Farmers Market

10:00am|Depot Market Square

Kiwanis Kids Egg Hunt

10:00am|Maiben Park

Cedar Dust Trail Ride and Party

10:00am|Boundary Bay Brewery

Plant Sale and Easter Events

10:00am|BelleWood Acres

Community Easter Egg Hunt

11:30am|Bellingham at Orchard

Obrigado Wines Tasting

2:00pm|Seifert & Jones Wine Merchants

Jesse Otero Art Talk

4:00pm|i.e. gallery

Splinter Ideas, Halibut on the Moon

4:00pm|Village Books

Artist Workshop

6:00pm|Bellingham Public Library

Skagit Valley College Drag Show

7:00pm|Lincoln Theatre

Problem Child and Ten Miles Wide

8:00pm|Mount Baker Theatre

Blue collar comedy in Edison

8:00pm

Salsa Night

9:00pm|Cafe Rumba

Trove Web
Tomorrow
Skagit Valley Tulip Festival

10:00am|Skagit Valley

Essence of Bellingham Photo Competition

10:00am|Whatcom County

Tulip Festival Street Fair

10:00am|Downtown Mount Vernon

Bellingham Beer Week

12:00pm|Throughout Bellingham

Plant Sale and Easter Events

10:00am|BelleWood Acres

Sedro-Woolley Community Breakfast

8:00am|American Legion Post #43

Rabbit Ride

8:30am|Fairhaven Bicycle

Wild Things

9:30am|Stimpson Family Nature Reserve

Egg Hunt and Easter Brunch

10:00am|Boundary Bay Brewery

Bellingham Handmade Market

11:00am|Goods Nursery and Produce

Langar in Lynden

11:00am| Guru Nanak Gursikh Gurdwara

Barkley Village Egg Hunts

11:00am|Barkley Village

Easter Brunch

11:00am|Ciao Thyme Commons

Nina Gerber and Chris Webster

2:00pm|Nancy's Farm

Neil Berg Village Books
Monday
Skagit Valley Tulip Festival

10:00am|Skagit Valley

Essence of Bellingham Photo Competition

10:00am|Whatcom County

Bellingham Beer Week

12:00pm|Throughout Bellingham

Wild Things

9:30am|Stimpson Family Nature Reserve

Earth Day Sustainable Food Fair

11:00am|Viking Union 565

Plant Diagnostic Clinics

4:30pm|Bellingham Public Library

Before the Flood

5:30pm|Pickford Film Center

Women's Backpacking Round Table Discussion

5:30pm|REI

Swing Dancing Classes

6:00pm|Presence Studio

Healthy Desserts

6:30pm|Community Food Co-op

Student Poetry & Art Showcase

6:30pm|Burlington Public Library

Poetrynight

7:00pm|Alternative Library

Salish Sea Early Music Festival

7:00pm|St. Paul's Episcopal Church

Wild & Scenic Film Festival

7:00pm|Mount Baker Theatre

Guffawingham

9:00pm|Firefly Lounge

see our complete calendar »

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