Dwelling On It
Wednesday, September 13, 2017
DWELLING ON IT: Bellingham is at last beginning to grapple with its existential housing crisis, thanks to the persistent efforts of the Bellingham Tenants Union. The association of renters helped pack a meeting of the Bellingham Planning Commission last week on accessory dwelling units (ADUs), a housing form that can help address issues of infill and the variety of housing stock that is essential to affordability.
The city began the process of updating its ADU ordinance in 2015, but the effort stalled as Council took up the update of the city’s Comprehensive Plan. Within the plan were key policy assumptions that govern ADUs and other dense housing forms. A number of issues were raised during the initial review of the ADU ordinance, and staff determined it was advisable to wait until goals and policies were established in the updated Comp Plan. In the meantime, Bellingham’s savagely overheated housing market has continued to boil over, with the median home price now topping $367,000—well outside the reach of struggling average incomes.
A city once known as friendly to lower incomes is no longer friendly.
Rates of economic hardship remain unchanged since the recession, according to city data, with children and young adults experiencing higher incidence of poverty and hardship than older residents. Across the board, nearly a third of ‘hamsters are struggling to make ends meet while the real estate market is raking it in.
For renters—more than 52 percent of the city’s population—the Bellingham Tenants Union laid out the issues in a letter to the mayor and City Council:
“High upfront costs are blocking people from entering housing, with a disproportionate impact on low-income renters and families, communities of color, students, the LGBT community, seniors, people with disabilities, and those paying with alternative sources of income such as social security,” they wrote.
While public opinion and correspondence with the city’s neighborhood associations appear to (guardedly) favor the development of new forms of housing, zoning in established neighborhoods is passively hostile to the concept. The city’s zoning is in fact upside-down to the task, streamlining construction of single-family homes on large lots that chew up limited land supply but discouraging (if not outright prohibiting) the tiny homes phenomenon that might close the gap between home price and income.
Rick Sepler, the city’s director of Planning and Community Development, sketched the history and challenges of zoning in a special presentation to City Council’s planning committee this week.
The basis of zoning is found in two key concepts, Sepler explained. The first aspect is to regulate land uses to avoid nuisance—where nuisance is defined as an activity that has a negative affect on adjacent properties, and place similar and compatible uses together. The second aspect is to enforce those regulations through police powers, to proactively avoid activities and actions that cause harm.
“In zoning there is a strong thread of preserving both the financial viability and predictability of development,” Sepler noted. “In essence, if you know what’s allowed you can make reasonable plans, you can have reasonable expectations, and we can achieve the ends of protecting human safety and welfare, and of avoiding nuisance.
“There are some challenges that are inherent in the strict application of zoning,” the planning director cautioned. “In general, zoning concentrates by its nature through exclusion areas of poverty. And in doing so the only aspect it preserves is prolonging poverty.”
In response, modern concepts of zoning favor inclusion rather than exclusion. But while homogenous zones provide predictability, they often don’t achieve other ends, other social goals. And zoning is not nimble to rapid changes in demographics.
“We’ve had a fundamental change in the housing environment,” Sepler admitted. “Economics have changed significantly. While much of our land-use planning came from an environment where residential use was the most dominant, and of those residential uses the ones that were seen to contribute most to the community were single-family housing. That model is changing nationally.”
The change reflects the economic realities of being able to afford it, the environmental realities of being able to sustain it—it is expensive to maintain dispersed low-density development—and also the changing desires of a population looking for something different, he said.
“Those demographics are found in changes in household size, the fact that we have a significant cohort of an aging population with changed expectations of how and where they want to live,” Sepler explained. “We also have a very significant student population, the impacts of which are profound on the community because institutions—nationally—stopped building housing and asked the surrounding communities to accommodate the student population. Millennials also reflect changed economics. Wage growth has been fairly flat, but housing costs have been significant in their rise.
“The sad story about zoning,” Sepler concluded, “is that it has been exclusionary as its nature. It has served to isolate pockets of poverty. We need to find a way of changing diversity throughout the community to better balance the futures of community members who live in poverty.
“Single-family homes were a preferred outcome, and for many it still is,” he admitted. “The balance is for those who don’t see that as an adequate end, we need to ensure we have adequate housing.”
Commenters at both forums urged City Council to sharpen their pencils and craft policies that assist current Bellingham residents first, lower-income households already in need of affordable housing, through mechanisms like a local preference policy. Such policies will be difficult to thread through state law, which discourages them. And it will be difficult to engage local developers and realtors who benefit from the churn of new money arriving in Bellingham from elsewhere.
Developers exercised a corrosive influence on the concept of inclusionary zoning when the Countywide Housing Affordability Task Force (CHAT) convened in 2007, chafing at proposals that would mandate construction of a variety of housing forms. At the bottom of the recession, it was the perfect moment for CHAT and the task force produced much good, but the organized resistance of builders and brokers ushered in a lost decade and perhaps a lost generation of housing opportunity.
City Council is well cautioned to avoid stumbling down that path a second time.