The Real Social Network
Wednesday, July 17, 2019
THE REAL SOCIAL NETWORK: This week’s meeting of Bellingham City Council was a masters’ course in current social justice and social equity issues.
Council appears inclined to continue their ban on the conversion of the city’s dwindling supply of manufactured home parks, one of the last remaining options for affordable homeownership for lower and fixed incomes—and perhaps the capstone to the puzzle of where and how to place tiny homes throughout the city. In June, Council put a moratorium in place that prohibits the acceptance or processing of any application to redevelop or change the use of any of the ten manufactured home parks in Bellingham. Their action drew this week’s public comments.
These parks—and many others scattered throughout the county—are zoned for high-density residential occupancy and are outfitted for utility hookups. Their small lots serve as a fusion of home ownership and rental access advantages, particularly for those on fixed incomes. At their perimeters and centers, these parks might accommodate a increasing demand for tiny homes, and perhaps in their maturity even replace larger, aging manufactured homes. They’re also fairly ripe for plunder and conversion by land speculators. The moratorium is intended to preserve the status quo as the city develops options to permanently preserve this form of affordable housing.
In a tangential action, City Council this week considered actions and code amendments that might forestall the creation of additional food deserts in Bellingham. A food desert is defined as an urban area where is difficult to purchase good-quality fresh food, including fruits and vegetables. One was created in Birchwood neighborhood with the closure of Albertson’s and an existing covenant that forecloses on any other grocer opening and operating in the surrounding area. The city has declined to test the rigor of that “non-compete” in court, but their work this week is intended to ensure no more are created. A proposed ordinance will restrict the ability of a company that closes a grocery store to enforce a restrictive covenant against other similar businesses from opening.
Moving more specifically to the city’s most vulnerable populations, City Council this week strengthened their plan to more ably respond to federal initiatives related to immigration enforcement in light of the increasing aggression of the Trump administration.
City policy already established a passive resistance to federal immigration enforcement, “providing all of its residents with fair and equal access to services, opportunities, and protection and to maximize public safety for the entire Bellingham community,” with the understanding that a terrorized population may seek the protections they are entitled to under state and municipal law.
“There have been recent reports that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is planning large-scale enforcement operations that could affect individuals, families, and businesses in our community,” Council member Hannah Stone reported. Stone is an attorney who specializes in immigration law. “Although it is impossible to know for certain which cities will be targeted, these operations will likely impact multiple cities across the United States. The fear surrounding increased federal enforcement operations is palpable and it is not only felt by undocumented members of our community—the ripple effect reaches to all corners of our city.
“It permeates beyond the undocumented population,” Stone added, “and includes permanent residents who are fearful that because of the color of their skin or the way they speak they may be swept erroneously through an enforcement effort.”
Council also took a shallow dive into the persistent gap in women’s wealth and equity in comparison to men’s, a crushing issue for the city’s most vulnerable populations.
While women earn an average of 79 cents for every dollar earned by men, they only own 32 cents of wealth and hard assets for every dollar owned by men, according to research. These wealth assets may be passed to the next generation, providing a financial cushion and a springboard for better economic opportunities. Conversely, their absence continues a generational pattern of impoverishment among the most vulnerable families.
Mayor Kelli Linville said her office plans to go through a series of recommendations to address the wealth gap, and group them into things that might be achieved in the near term and those that require more discussion for implementation.
One can often best understand social justice through the lens of criminal justice, how the System treats its vulnerable citizens who become ensnared in it.
On that front, Bellingham City Council this week also received the annual report of the Whatcom County Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force, and the central role the city has played in making that a document of encouraging news.
“As of March of 2019, more than 1,000 Bellingham Municipal Court defendants have completed sentences on electronic monitoring rather than in Whatcom County Jail,” the report authors commented. “This has enabled those defendants to remain employed, attend school, continue with treatment, keep children in their custody, attend medical appointments, and still be held accountable for their actions.
“This program has resulted in a savings to the city of over $2 million.”
In addition, the city has championed programs like GRACE and community paramedics to move emergency call loads away from police. The city has instituted changes to how municipal court handles charges related to domestic violence and behavioral health that have begun to percolate in its county district court counterpart. And the city has played a key partnership role in developing a mental health and substance abuse treatment center. The city and county may break ground on a new 32-bed facility by this fall.
Much more work needs to be done, but all of it circles back and is reinforced by a more humane treatment of the city’s transient, immigrant and economically vulnerable populations. Making the rules better, more inclusive and equitable, can help people stay inside the rules.