Wednesday, September 30, 2020
DEFINING FAMILY: Construction—and, potently, home construction—has been one industry that has recovered aggressively from the COVID-19 pandemic and economic shutdown. Both new home sales and new home construction fell sharply in spring during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic; however, both have rebounded, with new home sales back above pre-COVID levels and new home construction nearing recent highs. Still the imbalance continues in new construction for higher incomes and student needs while shortchanging the urgent need for affordable homes.
In Bellingham and outlying areas, more than 863 new housing units have been authorized in 2020. Of that number 386 multifamily units have been permitted in Bellingham to date, the largest portion of housing construction, and that compares favorably to 491 multifamily units permitted in 2019, according to City of Bellingham planning data.
New student housing accounts for a significant portion of that construction. Much of the latter is financed by distant lenders leveraging investments—that is to say the projects are driven more by available capital than local market demand—and it seems certain the city will vastly overshoot its need for student housing while continuing to fall short of housing stock needed for working families and lower incomes. The surplus may free up rental housing in Bellingham’s neighborhoods—and that’s good news in the larger equation, but that slow transition is a secondary or tertiary knock-on effect to the issue of housing the city’s future generations.
What’s being built precludes and forecloses on that which is not being built. The continued failure to tie affordable housing to land capacity places additional strain on the city’s neighborhoods to fill this need.
Mayor Seth Fleetwood met remotely with his Mayor’s Neighborhood Advisory Commission (MNAC) last week to reengage on a thorny issue—the so-called Rule of Three, a controversial city policy that defines a family as “not more than than three unrelated persons living together within a single dwelling unit.”
To many the distinction comes across as intrusive, restrictive and athwart the goals of providing housing to lower (and often younger and racially diverse) incomes in Bellingham; to others, the distinction is required to meet the single-family zoning that exists in many of Bellingham’s older neighborhoods. The city has, in recent years, mostly swallowed hard, looked aside and abashedly refrained from enforcing a rule that tries to define a family; however the definition lies at the very heart of what many consider the continued character of their neighborhood.
“Bellingham’s definition is contrary to recent efforts with respect to fair housing,” Perry Eskridge wrote the mayor on behalf of the Whatcom County Association of Realtors in April, noting a federal district court judge in Ohio recently found “the restriction neither advanced the city’s goal of regulating neighborhood density nor mitigated common nuisance complaints.”
The organization recommended not allowing outmoded definitions to stand in the way of addressing a local housing crisis.
The MNAC is a valuable tool in the mayor’s policy deliberations, with members recruited from the city’s neighborhood associations—groups as diverse and distinct across geographic and socio-economic areas as the neighborhoods they represent. Needless to say, there is a great variety of opinion expressed through MNAC on the Rule of Three.
“It’s enjoyable to get the flavor from our neighborhood representatives,” Fleetwood reflected. “For the longest time, we called it the Rule of Three. Now we’re calling it the ‘family definition,’ which seems more precise while also less restrictive.”
The mayor speculated that definitions should invite solutions, and not exclude solutions.
“Broadly speaking,” Fleetwood said, “there seems to be some interest within the group in reimagining the role MNAC might play in city planning. One of the points of view shared by some would be inclusion of an MNAC representative on the Bellingham Planning Commission.”
The opportunity seems ripe for a reimagining, with four positions opening on the seven-member community panel authorized to study planning issues and make policy recommendations to Bellingham City Council. Three members are reaching the ends of their terms on the commission. Terms of office are four years with a two-term limit. In recent years, the commission had been heavily represented by developers or those with development interests, leading to some organizational changes to the structure of the commission by City Council.
A fourth member, appointed by Fleetwood, failed to materialize and ultimately resigned from the commission after taking an administrative position elsewhere.
The appointment of the fourth member was significant, as she had served on the election campaign of April Barker, who had challenged Fleetwood for the mayor’s position last year. The appointment served as an olive branch to heal the divisions of a fractious election, but was considered controversial because Barker had expressed such strong views opposing the family definition and pledging to end single-family zoning in Bellingham.
“It’s appropriate,” Fleetwood reflected, “to have a range of opinions and perspectives on the commission.”
Service on the planning commission has traditionally been the gateway to higher elected city office, as it provides important insight into one of the most foundational roles of municipal government.
A more formal role for MNAC on the commission would more strongly tie planning to neighborhood goals, and strengthen the communication between both the commission and the neighborhood associations. With so many positions vacant on the commission, the time may be right for a reimagining.