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.