BELLINGHAM - Opponents and supporters of a proposed low-income housing levy agree that high rents and housing prices in Bellingham are a problem for people who are homeless or poor.
How they differ is whether Bellingham voters should increase property taxes to raise nearly $21 million over seven years to help the needy get into affordable housing. The measure is on the Nov. 6 ballot.
"I don't think there's any better time than now to create more housing that's truly affordable to very low-income families," said Greg Winter, director of Whatcom Homeless Service Center and co-chairman of the campaign to approve Proposition 1.
"People are hurting and they need help," he added.
To levy opponents, raising property taxes actually will burden the very people that are supposed to be helped because landlords, for example, could pass along the increase by raising rents.
"You don't make housing more affordable by making it more expensive. It's a burden on low-income homeowners and renters," said Jack Petree, an opponent of the measure who helped write the argument against it for the voters' pamphlet.
In response, Winter said rental prices are determined by supply and demand and wouldn't be driven by what he called a relatively small increase in property taxes over seven years.
If a simple majority of voters approve it, the levy would add a new tax of 36 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation, adding $90 a year to the tax bill on a $250,000 home.
Levy dollars going into the Bellingham Home Fund would build, preserve or otherwise be used for 1,300 homes and would help at least 8,500 families for years to come, supporters said.
About 76 percent of the money raised, or about $15.9 million, would be used to build and preserve homes while 8.9 percent, or a little over $1.8 million, would go for rental assistance and support services, according to a draft plan that the City Council would approve if voters OK the levy.
The plan was modeled on one implemented in Seattle since the 1980s that has been successful, according to Winter.
Another 8.9 percent, or $1.8 million, would be spent on low-income homebuyer assistance as well as acquisitions and opportunity loans. The remaining 6.1 percent, or nearly $1.3 million, would pay for administrative costs.
Two-thirds of the total funding would be used for very low-income households, and the remainder would be for low-income households, according to the ballot measure.
A family of two earning less than $27,150 annually is defined as very low-income, while a family of two earning less than $43,400 is low-income, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Housing is affordable when it is no more than 30 percent of household income.
As an example of the need, supporters noted that the Bellingham Housing Authority has 1,608 families on the waiting list for public housing.
The levy grew from a recommendation of the Countywide Housing Affordability Taskforce in 2008.
"I just think it's the right thing to do - a small contribution from many will make a huge impact in addressing one of our most pressing social problems," said Seth Fleetwood, who co-chaired the task force meetings and who, as a city councilman, brought the proposal before the City Council to be placed on the ballot.
The city's consolidated plan - which includes the current one and the draft of a new one that would go through 2017 - provides an overview of low-income housing needs in Bellingham.
It paints a picture of residents being caught between stagnant wages and skyrocketing house prices, or increasing rents coupled with low vacancy rates.
The median value of homes in the decade ending in 2010 increased by 96 percent, while median rent increased 29 percent. Yet the median family income went up by just 23 percent, according to the draft plan.
Levy supporters said the money would help needy seniors, veterans and families find housing. They said such efforts would create jobs for the construction industry, as well.
Providing housing help would save the entire community costs associated with poverty, such as people ending up in jail or the disabled on the streets ending up in emergency rooms, according to Winter.
Winter said he and his staff "see the end result of having too little affordable housing for very low-income families. This proposal is primarily about helping people in our community that need help, but it's also a good investment because we can avoid costs," he said.
Petree and Perry Eskridge, a member of People for Affordable Housing Choices, don't dispute high rents and high housing prices are a problem.
"Bellingham as a function of affordability is right behind Seattle in terms of housing cost," Eskridge said.
To opponents, the city's land-use policies and approach to housing have constricted the land supply and led to delays for projects, in turn driving up prices.
They point, as an example, to the City Council's decision in July to vote down the rezone request for the Padden Trails development, which included housing for different income levels at no cost to taxpayers.
"We shoot ourselves in the foot, and we complain that we're limping. Until we address the reasons for the excessively high costs of housing we'll do nothing with this kind of proposition," Petree said.
Opponents also were opposed to the decision to put the levy in front of voters before land-use elements of the affordability task force's plan had been taken care of. They also balk that the vote comes before the City Council has approved the city's draft consolid0ated plan as well as the plan laying out how the levy dollars would be spent.
Fleetwood said the task force-recommended elements are being worked on and that all pieces of it are important.
As for the Padden Trails argument, Fleetwood said, "It's largely a red herring and a distraction that demonstrates a misunderstanding about what the Home Fund is about."
And that is to deal with the needs of a chronic population that will have those needs regardless of land-use policy, he said.
As for waiting until plans have been approved, Fleetwood said the city has a plan.
"We have a consolidated plan that is perpetually in effect that we update," he said, referring to the consolidated plan that serves as the city's primary strategy for addressing low-income needs in Bellingham and which will be incorporated into the plan that lays out how levy dollars would be spent.
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