The Gristle

Toward A Housing Summit

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

TOWARD A HOUSING SUMMIT: Why is housing so expensive in Bellingham? A gap between average incomes and housing prices. A lag between population growth and home construction. A mismatch between laissez-faire “hands off “policy to spur growth and more directed public policy to keep housing affordable.

Bellingham City Council last week took a deeper dive into the issues of housing affordability, receiving a more detailed forensic analysis of trends that delivered glimmers of good news: The number of housing units completed over the past five years has begun to “move the needle” on Bellingham’s citywide vacancy and median rent rates, according to city planning staff. More preceisely, it has momentarily bent the curve on rents that have been rising faster than incomes.

“Trends as of January 2018 would have put today’s median rent at about $1,400,” planning staff reported. “Instead we are at about $1,300,” with median rental rates fairly flat for the past 24 months.

“Things are starting to stabilize, and we’re encouraged by that,” COB Planner Chris Behee said.

A key element in the equation, Bellingham’s vacancy rates have risen above 2.1 percent in all residential types for the first since early 2015.

A healthy rental vacancy rate hovers around 7 percent, according to analysis by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD); however, Bellingham’s rental vacancy rate hasn’t risen to even half that figure for more than a decade. And for the past five years in particular, the rate has held below an anemic 2 percent. It’s one symptom of a chronically inelastic, noncompetitive housing market for more than half of the city’s residents.

“We hear talk about ‘what is a healthy vacancy rate for Bellingham,’ and that may be somewhere around 5 percent is a healthy rate,” Behee explained. “When we look at the historical data, looking at units that are actually for sale or for rent at any given time, 3.5 to 4 percent is really as high as we’ve been,” looking at data that ranges back to the 1990s.

Council emphasis in their current analysis focused particularly on middle incomes—those that do not qualify for subsidized or specialized housing—and how housing options for those incomes are distributed around the city. Turns out it is distributed fairly equitably, but an increase in something like interest rates or transportation costs could shift that balance.

“We actually know a fair amount,” Behee said. “We have good data on the mix and distribution of housing types. We have, with our rental registration program data, a good sense of what tenure is in various areas of the city. We have very good information on production through our permit data, what we’ve built recently. And we also have much better information than we’ve had in past years on vacancy and median rental rates.”

Robust construction of new housing units appears to played an outsized role in stabilizing rental rates, Behee reported. Through the end of October Bellingham has issued permits for 834 housing units.

“If that rate continues, the end-of-year total for 2019 is projected to exceed 1,000 units,” he noted—a stunning number in comparison to the average produced over the past decade. “It looks like the next year or two will continue to be fairly large years as far as the number of units we’re considering issuing permits on,” he said.

Yet the city likely will have added at least 1,000 new residents to its population each of those years, every year. This is a problem the city can’t just build itself out of. It’s also a problem the city alone can’t solve.

As an indication of the growing scope of the problem, roughly 74.8 percent of housing units in Bellingham were considered affordable to median family incomes in 2000, according to city data. By 2019, 57.5 percent of housing units were considered affordable to median family incomes in Bellingham, according to the city’s data modeling.

The market alone can’t shift the balance, because the construction industry will produce the housing the market will bear—not the housing forms that are most needed. A market-based approach that kicks out one lower-cost dwelling for every ten built cannot achieve city policy goals, and would create a city a majority of residents would find unbearable.

Frankly, the Bellingham Home Fund has done more to shift the balance on home affordability than any other single city policy. That’s because while the city holds the purse strings, it also controls outcomes.

Approved by voters in 2012 and again in 2018, the fund supports the development of new rental housing units for households that earn less than half the area median income, and has created hundreds of new housing units in support of that goal. A small property tax levy, the Home Fund is projected to accommodate a project budget of $40 million over a 10-year period. That’s money to solve housing problems.

Toward the end of their afternoon session last week, Council member Michael Lilliquist suggested broadening the involvement of policymakers in the county and smaller cities who are at work on issues of housing security.

“It’s important that at the policy level, the elected level, we need to have oversight on the vision about how monies are distributed throughout the county,” Lilliquist said, suggesting a coordinated countywide effort. He was speaking primarily on topics of homelessness, which is—we’ll suggest—the grim end-point of our society’s inability to grapple with housing access and affordability. The county has not held such a coordinated discussion since the Countywide Housing Affordability Task Force (CHAT) in 2008.

It’s a marvelous idea and, for a topic as complex and far-ranging and vital to our future as housing, it’s a summit long overdue.

Past Columns
Work Horse, Not Show Horse

December 4, 2019

Dueling Data

November 20, 2019

Of Apples and Barrels

November 13, 2019

Hide the Money

October 30, 2019

Anchors Are Weighed

October 23, 2019

A Working Waterfront?

October 15, 2019

Keep Working

October 9, 2019

Signs of Hate

October 2, 2019

Trust Gap

September 25, 2019

Netse Mot

September 18, 2019

A Rising Tide

September 11, 2019

The Power of Change

September 4, 2019

Hands Against Hate

August 28, 2019

Ground Zero

August 21, 2019

Fire and Frost

August 14, 2019

The Fury and the Folly

August 7, 2019

Due East II

July 31, 2019

The Real Social Network

July 17, 2019

Events
Today
Holiday Festival of the Arts

10:00am|Bellingham Public Market

Deck the Old City Hall

12:00pm|Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall

Giving Tree

9:00am|Village Books

Gilded Winter Art Market

12:00pm|Lux Art Center

Miracle Pop-Up Holiday Cocktail Bar

4:00pm|Swim Club

Treasure Island

7:00pm|Sehome High School Theater

Shrek the Musical

7:00pm|Burlington-Edison High School

Number the Stars

7:30pm|Anacortes Community Theatre

Crazy for You

7:30pm|Bellingham Theatre Guild

Narnia the Musical

7:30pm|Claire vg Thomas Theatre

Working, A Musical

7:30pm|Performing Arts Center Mainstage

A Christmas Carol

7:30pm| Sylvia Center for the Arts

Blaine Holiday Book Sale

10:00am|Blaine Library

Pacific Arts Market

10:00am|Sunset Square

Holiday Bake and Gift Sale

10:00am|Lynden Community Center

Toys for Tots

10:00am

Holiday Used Book Sale

10:00am|Everson Library

Holiday Tea

11:00am|Willowbrook Manor

Holiday Port Festival

12:00pm|Bellingham Cruise Terminal

Winter wonderland

12:00pm|Outlet Shoppes at Burlington

Olde Fashioned Christmas

5:00pm|Pioneer Park

Holiday Art Walk

6:00pm|Downtown Anacortes

Holiday Make.Sale

6:00pm|Make.Shift Art Space

Honk! The Musical

7:00pm|Bellingham Arts Academy for Youth

Space Trek, Holiday Games

7:30pm|Upfront Theatre

Carols by Candlelight

7:30pm

Skagit Valley Academy of Dance presents The Nutcracker

7:30pm|McIntyre Hall

World Tour with the North Cascades Concert Band

7:30pm

Santa Breakfast

8:30am|Maple Hall

Festival of Trees

9:00am|Bellingham Senior Activity Center

NSEA Work Party

9:00am|Connelly Creek Nature Area

Holiday Book and Gift Sale

10:00am|Ferndale Library

Holiday Open House

10:00am|Morrison Glass Art

Holiday Harbor Lights Festival

10:00am|Blaine

Bellingham Farmers Market

10:00am|Depot Market Square

Holiday Tea

10:00am|South Whatcom Library

Fairhaven Frosty

10:00am|Fairhaven Park

Bow Holiday Festival

10:00am| Edison Elementary School

Poetry Workshops

10:00am|Mindport Exhibits

Worry Monsters, Trouble in Mind, and Hollow Kingdom

10:30am|Village Books

Family Holiday Fair

11:00am|Port of Anacortes Warehouse

Art Jingle

11:00am|Jansen Art Center

Deck the Halls

11:00am|Northwest Quilt & Fiber Arts Museum

Art Day at MONA

12:00pm|Museum of Northwest Art

Studio Open House

12:00pm

Fairhaven Winterfest

12:00pm|Historic Fairhaven

Holiday Harbor Lights Art Show

12:00pm|Blaine Pavilion

Holiday tea and music

1:00pm|Deming Library

Magic of Christmas

1:00pm|Sedro-Woolley

Fishboy Holiday Show

2:00pm|FishBoy Gallery

Constellations

2:00pm|Bellingham Theatre Guild

Bellingham Jazz

2:00pm|VFW Hall

Holiday Harmony

2:00pm|Mount Vernon Community Center

Champagne Tasting

2:00pm|Seifert & Jones Wine Merchants

Birding for Kids

2:30pm

Youth Artist Exhibition Reception

3:00pm|Gallery Syre

Holiday Magic with the Bellingham Symphony Orchestra

3:00pm|Mount Baker Theatre

Margaret Davidson Reception

4:00pm|i.e. gallery

Holiday Ice Show

5:00pm|Bellingham Sportsplex

Year in Review Reception

5:00pm|Smith & Vallee Gallery

Big Band Bash

5:00pm|Majestic

Lighted Boat Parade

5:30pm|Bellingham Bay

Lighted Christmas Parade

6:00pm|Lynden

Downtown Holiday Festival

6:00pm|Depot Market Square

La Conner Lighted Boat Parade

6:00pm|Swinomish Channel

Handel's Messiah

7:00pm|Mount Baker Theatre

A Winter Gift Holiday Celtic Concert

7:00pm|Littlefield Celtic Center

Holiday History Hi-Jinks

7:00pm|Downtown Bellingham

The Coats Holiday Concert

7:00pm|Bellingham High School

Christmas with the King

7:00pm|Firehouse Arts and Events Center

Swing Connection Big Band Holiday Concert

7:00pm|First Baptist Church

Folk Dance Party

7:30pm|Squalicum Yacht Club

Wintersong with Vox Pacifica

7:30pm|First Congregational Church

Walter Trout Band

8:00pm|Lincoln Theatre

Circus Boost Dance Party

8:00pm|Cirque Lab

Salsa Night

9:00pm|Cafe Rumba

Becoming Magic Mike

10:00pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

Tomorrow
Holiday Festival of the Arts

10:00am|Bellingham Public Market

Deck the Old City Hall

12:00pm|Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall

Giving Tree

9:00am|Village Books

Gilded Winter Art Market

12:00pm|Lux Art Center

Miracle Pop-Up Holiday Cocktail Bar

4:00pm|Swim Club

Crazy for You

7:30pm|Bellingham Theatre Guild

Narnia the Musical

7:30pm|Claire vg Thomas Theatre

Number the Stars

7:30pm|Anacortes Community Theatre

Working, A Musical

7:30pm|Performing Arts Center Mainstage

Pacific Arts Market

10:00am|Sunset Square

Holiday Port Festival

12:00pm|Bellingham Cruise Terminal

Winter wonderland

12:00pm|Outlet Shoppes at Burlington

Olde Fashioned Christmas

5:00pm|Pioneer Park

Honk! The Musical

7:00pm|Bellingham Arts Academy for Youth

Carols by Candlelight

7:30pm

Skagit Valley Academy of Dance presents The Nutcracker

7:30pm|McIntyre Hall

World Tour with the North Cascades Concert Band

7:30pm

Family Holiday Fair

11:00am|Port of Anacortes Warehouse

Holiday Harbor Lights Art Show

12:00pm|Blaine Pavilion

Birding for Kids

2:30pm

Holiday Ice Show

5:00pm|Bellingham Sportsplex

Wintersong with Vox Pacifica

7:30pm|First Congregational Church

Langar in Lynden

11:00am| Guru Nanak Gursikh Gurdwara

Silver Tea

2:00pm|Everson Library

Candlelight Concert

2:00pm|First Presbyterian Church

Second Sunday Jazz

2:00pm|Anacortes Public Library

Community Meal

2:00pm|First Christian Church

One Family Indivisible

4:00pm|Village Books

Holiday Parade and Tree Lighting

5:00pm|Mount Vernon

For the Love of Chamber Music

7:30pm|Performing Arts Center Concert Hall

The Gateway Show

8:00pm|Upfront Theatre

Monday
Holiday Festival of the Arts

10:00am|Bellingham Public Market

Miracle Pop-Up Holiday Cocktail Bar

4:00pm|Swim Club

Community Soup Kitchen

6:00pm|Little Cheerful Cafe

Scepter Awards

6:00pm|Makeworth Market

Books on Tap

6:30pm|El Agave 2

Poetrynight

7:00pm|Alternative Library

Guffawingham

9:00pm|Firefly Lounge

see our complete calendar »