Fight City Hall

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Nothing less than a land grab has taken place in Bellingham that the city has failed to acknowledge as among the principal causes of unaffordability. More than half the population rents property owned by someone else. The panoply of causes involves Western Washington University (WWU), greedy landlords, rentiers and real estate investors. As a consequence, the city has helped, through either design or ignorance, to support a divisive attack on individual, small property owners as the culprits, as the NIMBYs (Not In My Backyard).

Our officials now embrace corollaries of “gig” economy solutions such as zoning changes to permit detached accessory dwelling units for rent, and multi-family housing types in single-family (SF) zoned areas—bulldoze an existing home, build a triplex, live in one and rent the other two.

Instant rentier! Charge the maximum rent!

The icing on the cake is the non-enforcement (to date) of city codes on vacation rentals, allowing hundreds of dwelling units to be taken out of the market for the convenience of travelers and to the detriment of our permanent population. Vacation rental owners run laughing to the bank without paying business taxes, without procuring a business license and without undergoing basic safety and health inspections. (This may change in 2018 with a new ordinance on short-term rentals.)

Nobody can explain how affordability of dwelling units, especially for present residents, will be guaranteed under any current city plans.

At no time is the city pointing up the hill to WWU, the institution that since 1970 has brought to this city thousands of students without the least bit of consideration of what that might do to the housing stock. Nor does the city look to the landlords who have gobbled up much of the single-family housing (one landlord owns nearly 40 SF homes in the SF zoned areas of the York Neighborhood alone), rendering purchase by families impossible, while obscenely jacking up the rents for decades. Nor does anyone look to the realtors who are complicit in this wealth transfer. Welcome to the rentier economy. Nonetheless a scapegoat must be found, enter the “privileged” homeowner.

Homeowners and others who oppose this ineffective and often counterproductive floundering, presented to “solve” the problem, become the whipping boys (or girls) and are accused of negativism, elitism, racism or worse—being middle class who look down their noses as they bask in an economic security that, ironically, only really exists for the uber-rich. Landlords (the rentier class) gouge tenants with impunity and developers are left off the hook or given sweet deals in reduced impact fees or taxes to prop up profits when they deign to provide questionably and marginally “affordable” units.

We see that happening now with this folderol around cures for housing unaffordability in which the Emperor of Affordability struts just as naked before us while all applaud his gorgeous wardrobe of zoning garments that will not fit.

We cannot build or zone our way out of this problem and to tell the opposite to the public sets up false expectations and promotes a cynicism that will certainly backfire on the council and administration.

Consequently, part of Bellingham’s solution, like that of many other cities, is to move to or promote obliquely the “sharing economy” that is nothing more than a gussied-up version of the “gig economy” in which everything is for sale or rent on an individual basis for the sake of producing affordability. Rent your car, rent your house, rent your garage, rent your lawn, rent your tools, rent your body, sell your hair, sell your organs, sell your blood, sell advertising space on all surfaces you control, sell your soul if you can make a miserable buck. Sell, rent, rent, sell, ad infinitum et ad nauseam in the name of creating affordability.

You and everything around you are nothing more than profit centers and, by the way, to hell with the commons, treasures that are also sold by governments and privatized for one-time profits to be used, abused, polluted, destroyed and spit out as filthy junk whose disposal will be paid for by you. And if you fail at all those wonderful opportunities to succeed as a profit center and provide affordable whatever to the masses, it is your own fault. You are on your own within the rentiers’ version of the wild west. And for those who cannot survive on the risibly called minimum wage, that is not of this government’s concern.

Writing with precision and conviction on the topic of neighborhoods, Dick Conoboy has been awarded the 2017 Paul DeArmond Award for Citizen Journalism. This article first appeared on Northwest Citizen. For details about the award, go to

Get involved! The Bellingham Neighborhood Coalition (BNC), an alliance of local neighborhood advocates, invites sponsors Martin Henry Kaplan, AIA, a Seattle neighborhood activist, at 6:30pm Thurs., Jan. 11, at the downtown Central Public Library, 210 Central Ave. Admission is free. To reserve a seat, visit the BNC website at:

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