The Bellingham low-income housing levy is an ill-conceived tax increase with the undesirable consequence of bringing more harm to the poor than any other part of our population.
Those who want you to vote to increase your taxes to allegedly "help" the poor base their plea on appeals to your emotions. Paraphrased, they claim, "You are heartless and cruel if you don't vote for this tax increase." Buzzwords are liberally used. If you don't vote for this tax you are rejecting "seniors," "veterans," "the homeless," and, worse, "children," especially "homeless children."
But if you really want to help the poorest among us, you will vote no on Proposition 1. The proposition will increase the tax load on nearly one-third of Bellingham's homeowners who are also low-income as well as on the 13,000 low-income householders who rent and will see the tax applied to their apartments.
In short, you are being asked to increase the financial burden on about 16,000 low-income households in order to provide home fix ups, rental assistance and a few homes for less than 1,300 households. That means about 12 low income people will have to pay more in taxes for every single low-income person helped.
The unintended harm to the poor was brought about because the so-called low-income housing levy was rushed to the ballot prematurely. As a result:
The study meant to tell us whether the money is actually needed and where it should actually be spent will not be sent to the council until after you have already voted on Proposition 1.
The proposition was put on the ballot before accurate data was available;
Proponents provide you will all sorts of pretty charts and promises about where the money will be spent but there is no plan for spending the money. According to the city's ballot language, "Funding priorities would be set forth in an administrative and financing plan adopted by the City Council following recommendations by a citizen advisory committee to the mayor and council;"
You will not find out how the money will actually be spent until after you have voted;
Proponents indicate all the money will be spent on affordable housing. The council was more honest in pointing out $1,260,000 will be spent on administration; that is money to be spent on administering programs already existing and already being administered with existing funds;
Does a family of four making $54,000 per year really need housing assistance? That is the HUD baseline for determining eligibility for subsidized housing in Bellingham;
Perhaps most offensive, inappropriately shifting some tax money away from residents designated as "very low income" and "extremely low income" to citizens with somewhat higher incomes has already been openly discussed before council (the discussion is on video). The council has been assured there are "strategic ways" to shift federal funds to, in effect, shift spending away from the very poorest among us and allow that money to be spent on less poor citizens.
If you are not yet convinced Proposition 1 is an ill-conceived tax increase, ask yourself these questions:
Our planning for serving the poor in recent years has included city recommendations that builders be offered opportunities to build more homes per acre in return for commitments to build affordable housing. In recent years hundreds of "free" (homes built at developer expense without the need for a tax increase) affordable homes have been offered, only to be rejected by the city. Why?
Draft proposals for spending the new tax money targets areas where the city's own studies demonstrate housing cannot be built affordably. That means we are really planning to spend the money to further city planning policy at the expense of the poor. Why?
You cannot make housing more affordable by making it more expensive. Homelessness is emotional for all. However, appeals to emotion cannot help when government has already begun to "strategize" inappropriate funding shifts away from the most needy. Spending $21 million in new taxes will inequitably raise rents on low-income wage earners and stifle jobs growth. Those most in need must be helped but we need an effective spending plan before we write a blank check.
For stories about Whatcom County and Washington State issues and candidates on the Nov. 6 ballot, go to BellinghamHerald.com/local-elections.
Jack Petree is a Bellingham public policy consultant and author of many magazine articles on growth planning.