At Large

Jean Layton, candidate for Bellingham City Council

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

“My platform is simple and complex—homes, health and jobs,” Jean Layton admits in her campaign statement. A small business owner as a licensed Naturopathic physician (ND), Layton says she understands obstacles to good health, from economic opportunity, to lack of housing and access to nutritious food.

“Currently, there is no representation of the 54 percent renter-occupied Bellingham housing on Council,” Layton says. Her family rents their home in the York neighborhood and she serves on the neighborhood association board.

Cascadia Weekly: Standard opening question, why are you running for Bellingham City Council?

Jean Layton: Multiple facets to the answer. First, I was activated with the Bernie Sanders campaign last year. I’ve been a lifelong Democrat and have voted since I was 18 years old in every election. I grew up in a family where my dad routinely said, “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.”
Getting involved in Bernie’s campaign made me aware the place to begin to get involved is at the city level, and geography puts me at the city at-large because my ward is not up this year.

The issues to me are clear.

I am a renter; and I serve on the York board. Because you have to fix what you are around, what is around you first. And after you fix what you’re around, you can think about bigger choices.

CW: How will you approach your three main objectives—housing, health and jobs—from a position on City Council?

JL: Housing (which includes homelessness) is a huge issue. We have 800-some people living on the streets; and 100 of them are children. This community? That many children living on the streets is a crime. We have an affordability problem, just like the rest of the West Coast; and we have to deal with that because otherwise we’re gong to end up stratified, the haves and the havenots. And the havenots are going to be driving from some distant borough into some minimum-wage job to try to support themselves.

From the standpoint of health, I start as a naturopathic physician from the entire being is your health.

We need as a community to make sure that the Port of Bellingham finishes with the brownfield on the waterfront, visqueen sheeting and gravel is not enough. it has to be mitigated and, yes, I know that will be expensive. But the people who made the decision to say, “We’ll take it on,” they need to do it.

On the larger issue of health care, we must have a plan to deal with the people who are affected most—based on what appears to be happening at the national level—by not having health care, dental care, family care, mental health care. We need to support those people.

We need a triage center to be able to do it, so we don’t need to have police continuously having to take these folks to the ER. That can take a patrol officer off of the streets for up to four or six hours. We need a triage center, and we need it [laughs] a year and a half ago!

That was the message voters sent—no big jail, we want treatment and alternatives. Two years later, we’re still working on it. Some people are committing crimes because they don’t have access to care.

And the final piece, living-wage jobs.

Everyone knows, our minimum wage here in Bellingham does not support a minimum home, bought or rented.

There are a lot of reasons for this, one of which is that we have an incredibly challenging rental situation. Much of that challenge comes from the university, where the rental market can fluctuate wildly every time new classes begin. Western can’t even fully house its freshman class.

We have some laws in Bellingham that are not being enforced. One involves no more than three unrelated people in a home. And a restriction against short- term rentals is not being enforced. If we’re not going to enforce the laws that are already on the books, we’ll never be able to control how housing is used.
It becomes not just housing, but a commodity. And this business, this business of renting, is a commodity and this business is an untaxed business. There is no B&O tax for rentals.

I think we need to go out to the state, create a way of taxing that business, and that tax can go into support of a housing levy. And that levy can be used to support people who are being forced out of homes by rising rents and a commodities market.

CW: One of the issues City Council is wrestling with is a lack of variety in housing forms, and two of the laws you mentioned that are not being enforced—the rule of three and restrictions on short-term rentals—yield some flexibility to housing. Both are limiting factors as they try to solve the housing issue. What’s your response?

JL: When people say short-term rentals don’t affect the market, when someone has a rentable situation—and that can be anything from a single room to renting a second house—when someone is doing that on a short term that is changing the long-term market. If someone has an entire house, and could be renting it out as a family home but chooses instead to rent it out short term, because some parent out-of-state can afford to write a check for that amount, that changes our long term rental market.
On the short term, it is a dollar choice; on the long term, it is a housing choice.

We have a rule in place against the short term. It is not enforced. And that means we are making a decision that that’s OK.

On the rule of three, there are a lot of people who have a lot of emotion on this issue. What it comes down to, for me, is that if you have a five-bedroom house and you rent it by the room, and you put five unrelated people into that house at, what’s current, $600 per room, that makes that home more valuable as a short-term boarding house than it does as a single-family residence. So if a family wants to live downtown where they work, and have their kids go to local excellent neighborhood schools, they’re priced out of the market because we’ve allowed a boardinghouse in a neighborhood that was not zoned for it.

We need certainty. We need taxation. We need inspection, to make sure these are actually viable units. And let’s keep talking about that dichotomy between commodity and housing, because that’s where we’re at.

I live in York neighborhood, so welcome to my world.

I have neighbors who are single-family renters. I have neighbors who have roommates. I have the not-quite-Animal House neighbors. And you can feel how disconnected that makes the neighborhood in a single block.

Yet one of the goals of a single-family neighborhood is to have a community, to stabilize a community, to create block parties and neighborhood watch teams—all of the things that are part of the social contract of that zoning.

CW: Yet, understanding that connection between availability and affordability, where do we put those people who are coming to Bellingham?

JL: That’s where the crux is. We need to be able to create that missing set of housing.

We need low-income housing, we need that missing middle. And the reality is, some of that is in the pipeline. We’re like everyone else on the West Coast, because the developers did not build. When everything went south, when we had our recession, nobody was taking out building permits.

There are currently about 3,000 units in the pipeline. They’ll come on the market within the next year or two.
That doesn’t help things this summer. But they’re coming.

I don’t want upzoning an existing neighborhood to occur to fix a short-term problem, because zoning is fairly permanent. Zoning is a social contract, it is a promise, and we need to fulfill that contract and keep that promise.

Now, I do want to see new multi-family zones filled in the way the urban villages were defined and created. Our urban villages have not been built yet. So we need to look at that situation.

CW: In your view, what distinguishes you and your campaign from those of others who are seeking this at-large position?

JL: Let me just say that I am not running against them. I am running for the position. My campaign is affirmative.

Our current at-large Council member is happy to claim some really symbolic changes. Name change of a holiday. Name change of a street. Support of NoDAPL. Support of treaty rights. Opposition of a transgendered bathroom bill. All of which are fabulous, supportive, and not terribly relevant to city means or desires.

If she has actually brought forward other issues that are specific and relevant to Bellingham, I have to admit I have not seen them.

CW: How about the rest of the Council. Do believe they’re effective in the goals you’d like to see, and what do you bring to their group?

JL: What I bring, I think, is the understanding of a renter, which is the largest portion of the city’s population but I believe is not represented on the current Council.

The entire Council has been trying to do something on the issues that concern me, and of course there are conversations that are occurring outside of Council.

Our planning department talks a lot about how long it can take for things to change—the new initiatives with the university that try to tie town-to-gown, which sounds awesome. It still comes down to enforcement.

And somebody has to say, “enforce these laws,” and I think that comes down squarely on the shoulders of the mayor and City Council.

I’m not seeing it. I’m not happy I’m not seeing it.

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