Don’t Fence Us Out

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

On July 4, hundreds of folks gathered in the vast cobbled field on the Bellingham waterfront to hear musicians and speakers and to watch performances promoting racial justice. Also on that day some folks crossed Granary Avenue to paint racial justice messages on a block-long plywood construction fence. The vibe was festive. No authorities objected to the fact of social/political art being applied to the fence.

On July 14, I was busily adding some postered messages about housing justice to the mix on the fence when I was accosted by the project manager for Harcourt Developments. Without benefit of COVID mask, he rushed up to me and violently ripped the poster that I was gluing to the wall out of my hands. A verbal confrontation ensued until two Bellingham Police officers skillfully calmed the hard-hat-wearing fellow.

The cops respectfully sought information and helped negotiate a peaceful end to the dispute. I chose to remove the posters for the time being.

There are plenty of sources for information about the Port of Bellingham’s contract with the man’s employer, Harcourt Developments, and the roadblock that the contract presents to development—particularly of affordable housing on the waterfront.

Thanks for reading my anecdote about the fence, but what I really want to write about is—


Roughly half of Bellingham residents are cost-burdened by rent or mortgage payments. That means they pay more than 30 percent of monthly household income for housing. Many pay way more.

The fact of cost burdening means less to spend at local businesses, more need to work long hours, less time with friends and family and, sometimes, less food or medicine.

Land prices and other factors make it almost impossible for builders to make it pencil to construct homes for the lower 50 percent. The potential to build affordably is increased if the land is owned by a nonprofit or a municipality or another public entity like, you guessed it, the Port of Bellingham.

The port’s main mission is to promote economic development.

I, among many other housing activists, contend that affordable housing is, indeed, economic development.
Every market-rate home that is built today in our town is a step away from meeting the home affordability needs of the people in the lower half of the income spectrum. It should be among the highest priorities of public policy to rectify this problem.

The city, county and port are not, despite many genuinely good intentions and tries, tying their policies and actions to the metric of meeting the actual home and shelter needs of their taxpaying citizens.

The energy for change in this time of racial justice protests could and should be used to address the oppression of high housing costs that disproportionately affects people of color.

Michael Chiavario has lived in Bellingham since 1968. He retired from his job at Whatcom County Parks after 20 years of service in 2015.For more perspective,

Past Columns
Back to the wild

May 6, 2020

Every Other Weekly?

April 1, 2020

Unified Command

March 18, 2020

Kids World

January 29, 2020

Fierce Urgency of Now

January 15, 2020

The Three Rs

December 18, 2019

Saying Goodbye

December 11, 2019

Cold and Alone

December 4, 2019

Big Money Politics

November 13, 2019

A Win for the Birds

July 24, 2019

Road to ‘Nowhere’

June 26, 2019

Game Changes

April 24, 2019

Salish Sea Science

January 23, 2019

Cherry Point Amendments

January 16, 2019

Invest in the Future

September 26, 2018

A Desperate Call

August 29, 2018

Criminalizing Protest

July 18, 2018