Top Stories, 2018
Wednesday, January 2, 2019
TOP STORIES, 2018: In lasting impacts to Cascadia, these were the top stories of 2018, and these will continue to vex us in the new year:
1. Housing Insecurity: Housing affordability and its attendant consequences of homelessness and income insecurity, dominated the news cycle in 2018.
Bellingham officials wrestled with policies and ordinances to make housing forms more varied and more accessible throughout the city, but the housing market particularly for renters (approximately 54 percent of the city’s residents) remains inelastic. Vacancy rates—the engine through which the rental market is made competitive—remained below 2 percent in 2018, lower than the average in western Washington.
The city meanwhile struggled with the impacts of a rising incidence of homelessness, ultimately surrendering on the siting of a low-barrier homeless shelter and focusing instead on interim zoning regulations for the siting of temporary homeless encampments that might allow nonprofits and private charities to provide shelter for homeless individuals.
The city set the standard and example in December by issuing a permit for a temporary tent encampment behind City Hall for people experiencing homelessness. The permit was issued to HomesNOW! to operate Winter Haven, which will provide daily services to up to 20 tents for up to 40 people. The encampment will include bathrooms, showers, drinking water, an outdoor kitchen, garbage and recycling containers, and human and social services.
A bright spark in the year’s darkness, voters approved by a wide margin an extension of the Bellingham Home Fund, a housing levy that provides affordable homes for seniors with low incomes, veterans, people with disabilities, and working families. Bellingham Home Fund dollars are used within the city for new construction of affordable housing or for preservation of existing buildings.
2. Orcas and Pipelines: Spectacular examples of Puget Sound’s apex predator and indicator species perished in 2018, including several almost-irreplaceable breeding-age females. Equally alarming, the first calf born in three years to the endangered orcas died—a dire warning for a population already at its lowest in more than three decades.
Her mother carried the dead calf for days afterward, symbolic of a grief that drew national attention on effort to repair the broken habitat of these symbols of the Salish Sea.
Biologists understand quite well the factors contributing to the decline of resident orcas, including the loss of their preferred food source and an increase in ambient noise and pollution related to human activity in Puget Sound. A joint task force convened by Gov. Jay Inslee in March confessed none of these problems are easily solved, but acknowledged orcas can’t survive these problems getting worse.
Inserted into this debate must be factored a proposed expansion in the Trans Mountain Pipeline, an energy project to deliver Alberta tar sands oil to foreign markets that was nationalized by the Canadian government in September. If completed, the pipeline and its associated spur—the aging Puget Sound Pipeline that delivers tar sands oil to refineries in Whatcom and Skagit counties—would usher in a five-fold increase in heavy vessel traffic in the Salish Sea along with an increase in attendant risk of a fuel spill that could prove ultimately fatal to resident orca populations.
A revised study of the Trans Mountain project is anticipated in 2019.
3. Justice Reform:A death in Whatcom County Jail last week, while determined to be of natural causes, reinforced a narrative of deteriorated and unsafe conditions in a crowded facility. Investigation continues into factors that contributed to the death, the third in the jail in 2018.
In March, Whatcom County Council authorized the first of more than $12 million in funds earmarked for repairs at the Whatcom County Jail over the next six years, after voters rejected a sales tax for a new facility in 2017.
The Whatcom County Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force, created by County Council following the failure of that jail tax initiative, released their annual report in June, detailing an array of policies and tools to improve criminal justice and behavioral health programs and reduce incarceration, including a detailed work plan that should guide policymakers and staff through 2020.
Their recommendations arrive in the white heat of a rising opioid addiction crisis that continues to challenge the county’s criminal and social justice resources.
Indeed, debate about the jail and justice shaped the November county election, where the opportunity to elect the first new prosecutor in four decades became a referendum on criminal justice reform. Prosecutor Eric Richey rolled out a pilot program to extinguish outstanding arrest warrants at the height of the August primary, and it remains to be seen if he will continue the program and others as he assumes office in January.
4. Climes, They Are A-Changing: Whatcom County witnessed a voter turnout in November that was unsurpassed in records dating back to the 1930s. And while this produced some churn in the 42nd Legislative District, it was insufficient to dislodge Republican Sen. Doug Ericksen, who won reelection by just 45 votes—fewer than the number of ballots that were spoiled or wasted by fatuous write-in suggestions. Two or three additional Bellingham precincts would have turned the tide in the 42nd—and that’s worth keeping in mind in future redistricting efforts—but until there’s change in the state’s aggressive top-two voting system, voting and voting responsibly remains the best policy in elections where every ballot matters.