Civic Agenda: Bellingham taking action on affordable housing

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDSeptember 1, 2013 

Affordable housing is an issue that faces everyone in our community at one time or another - from the young families who are first-time homebuyers trying to find a neighborhood home, to the students who are renting and trying to get through school, to the homeowner who wants to convert a garage to a mother-in-law unit. As someone who cares deeply about our high quality of life in Bellingham, I have long advocated to help make Bellingham a place where people can live, work, go to school and play.

Affordable housing is an important part of that.

My parents built their Fairhaven home on the GI bill after World War II, and without that help, it might not have been possible. I understand and support that subsidized housing has a place in our community. We need to continue to provide the right environment in our city to have a variety of housing options to meet everyone's needs - single family, multifamily, pocket neighborhoods, subsidized and supported housing, and cottage housing all have their place in a well-planned community.

Not all of these things can be provided by the city, but we can support affordable housing in several ways. This summer, we've explored two opportunities that the city can pursue to help provide affordable housing. The first is revisiting the work done by the countywide housing affordability taskforce in 2008 and recommending possible changes to our city code, and the second is implementing the Bellingham housing levy funds distribution.

WORKING WITH TASKFORCE RECOMMENDATIONS

In early 2007, Bellingham and Whatcom County leaders created the 12-member housing affordability taskforce to develop and present action strategies and programs to address the anticipated need for 11,000 additional housing units by the year 2022 that are affordable to households earning 80 percent or less of the county median income. After more than 40 meetings, the taskforce presented their recommendation in late 2008.

This summer, Bellingham City Council President Seth Fleetwood and I convened another group of individuals to revisit the work done by the taskforce five years ago and to examine where the city has followed through on action strategies and where more actions can be recommended. This "citywide" affordable housing taskforce has now met several times and focused on examining the list of six main goals produced by the 2008 countywide housing affordability taskforce:

1. Codify housing action plan organizations;

2. Create an affordable housing investment fund;

3. Strive to reduce land and building costs;

4. Provide incentives for the creation of affordable housing;

5. Retain older housing stock;

6. Retain and replace mobile and manufactured homes.

In 2010 the voters approved No. 2 on that list, so at the first meeting of this new group, we decided to concentrate on goals 3 and 4: strive to reduce land and building costs, and provide incentives for the creation of affordable housing. The group provided and refined a list of 16 recommended actions that the city could take to improve affordable housing in our community, including making it easier and affordable to build smaller houses, adjusting impact fees, examining allowing single-family homes to include additional dwelling uses, exploring the idea of wetland mitigation banking, and providing neighborhoods the opportunity to pilot some of these actions.

The next step is to have city staff provide recommendations for the group to consider in the September meeting. We will then prioritize actions to implement in the months ahead.

MOVING FORWARD WITH THE HOUSING LEVY

The second major city action to help provide affordable housing in Bellingham is through implementation of the housing levy. The 2012 Bellingham Housing Levy aims to assist the homeless and low-income tenants in Bellingham. The levy is expected to generate $3 million per year for seven years and is intended to fund four programs:

Production and preservation of homes;

Rental assistance and support services;

Low-income homebuyer assistance;

Acquisition and opportunity loans.

The levy was proposed by the Bellingham City Council and passed by the voters in 2012. This spring, the city put out a call for applications. The housing levy priorities include meeting the needs of the homeless, increasing the affordable housing supply, assisting the housing and service needs of the elderly, assisting the special needs populations, supporting healthy children and families, preserving affordable housing stock, meeting geographic housing priorities, and coordinating the delivery of services.

In July, the city received applications for its first round of funding. This year, the seven applicants are from established community organizations that are looking to expand or provide new programs and services to meet our affordable housing needs. The applicants were Bellingham Housing Authority, Catholic Housing Services, Sun Community Service, Kulshan Community Land Trust, Lydia Place, Opportunity Council and YWCA of Bellingham. Specific information about these projects is available on the city's website.

The city is now evaluating these proposals, and public comment will be accepted on these applications through Sept. 12. The applications will be reviewed by the city's Community Development Advisory Board, which is expected to make recommendations to me in mid-September. We will have final awards announced by the end of the month.

A PLACE TO LIVE, WORK AND PLAY

Overall, the city has reason to be optimistic about housing and our economy in general. Sales tax receipts are up and employment is steady, but housing prices and rents continue to rise. We need to continue to make Bellingham housing affordable for everyone. We need to provide a variety of housing in a variety of forms and a variety of places throughout our community while maintaining our high quality of life. Bellingham is a great place to live, with unique neighborhoods, and we need a strategy to maintain that uniqueness while providing the housing we need. We look forward to your comments as we bring forward recommendations that allow us to live, work, learn and play in Bellingham.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

This is one of a series of monthly Civic Agenda reports The Bellingham Herald invited Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville to provide to share updates about City of Bellingham issues and projects. She invites citizens to contact her at 360-778-8100 or mayorsoffice@cob.org.

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