Local Election

What’s the No. 1 issue in the 2019 Whatcom election? You tell us

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As the 2019 election season opens, I’ve been talking to candidates in several key races across Bellingham and Whatcom County to see how they will provide the kind of leadership that’s required of a mayor, an executive or a council member.

Some of the candidates are highlighting their qualifications, their records as elected officials, or their endorsements. Others are discussing issues such as climate change and the environment, housing, income inequality and homelessness.

What candidates say is important, because it gives voters an idea of the kind of leader they’ll be, the issues they intend to pursue in office and how they intend to work with other governments to solve regional problems.

As Bellingham Councilmember Pinky Vargas told me about her race for Bellingham mayor: “The campaign trail is the longest job interview you’ll ever have.”

I hope you’ll share with me what you want to know to make those important hiring decisions on your ballot.

We’ve posted a Google form that you can use to let me know what information you need before you vote.

I’d also like to know your opinions about the issues facing Bellingham and Whatcom County.

Your answers to these questions will influence our campaign coverage.

I’d also like to keep the conversation going as I write about candidates and their campaigns over the next several months.

If you have an issue that’s important to you, or a suggestion, a complaint or praise, feel free to contact me at robert.mittendorf@bellinghamherald.com or by phone at 360-756-2805. If I’m not around to answer, leave me a message.

For social media, I’m on Twitter @BhamMitty and Instagram at gomittygo, where I post personal photos and also photos and video from selected news events. Send me a note via Facebook Messenger. Follow election news on Facebook via The Bellingham Herald account.

Over the course of the primary and general election campaigns, I’ll be talking in more detail with the candidates and I’ll be providing information on the races we’ve chosen to highlight — from their qualifications and experience to their donors, endorsements and supporters.

For now, we’re focusing on the races for Bellingham mayor and City Council, and Whatcom County executive and County Council, because those are the races that affect the most people, and their policies will influence the entire region.

For me, housing is the No. 1 campaign issue, and possibly the only issue.

Every campaign topic — from living-wage jobs to homelessness, mental health, crime, traffic, parking and zoning — can be linked to housing affordability and housing insecurity in one way or another.

Rising home prices push rents higher, and the cost of keeping a roof over their head leaves more people struggling to pay the landlord. That means people need jobs that offer a living wage, or they must seek living situations that reduce their rent, such as finding roommates or downsizing into a smaller space.

Housing drives government policy as cities decide whether to build upward and become more dense, or to sprawl outward into former open space and agricultural land. “It’s balancing growth versus the quality of life,” as County Council candidate Kathy Kershner told me.

Washington state had the eighth-highest “housing wage” in the nation last year, according to the “Out of Reach 2018” report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Residents of the Evergreen State must earn $26.87 an hour to afford the average two-bedroom apartment — more than double the state minimum wage of $12 an hour.

If people can’t afford rent and they end up on the street, homelessness puts increased pressure on social services, on mental health professionals, and on the police and fire departments.

It’s all connected. I’ve been covering housing-related issues for the past two years, and in that time I’ve seen retirees renting rooms to students to make ends meet, heard of people who’ve had to reject jobs in Bellingham because they can’t afford rent or even find an apartment, and listened to horror stories of substandard housing from renters too afraid of eviction to complain.

And the numbers don’t give much hope to residents of modest income:

Whatcom County home values rose 10% in the first quarter of 2019, according to a recent report from the Federal Housing Finance Agency, ranking the area 16th highest among 241 U.S. metro areas.

Median home price of homes sold in Whatcom County rose 5% to $383,400 in the first quarter, according to an April report from Troy Muljat of Muljat Group Realtors. In the Bellingham market, prices jumped 14.1% to $485,000.

Average monthly rent in Bellingham was $1,823 in April, according to the online real estate company Zillow, up 11% from April 2018.

United Way’s 2018 ALICE Report showed that 17% of Whatcom County residents live in poverty and another 22% are “asset-limited, income-constrained, employed” — in plain terms, they’re the working poor.

Only about 60% of Whatcom County residents were outside the ALICE standard in that report.

That’s a pretty stark number.

And it’s why the issue needs attention now.

My wife and I were fortunate enough to buy a home in Whatcom County about 15 years ago, before the current boom.

We moved here with our daughters because we knew we’d never be able to buy a home in Santa Cruz, Calif., where we’d lived for 15 years and struggled on middle-class salaries.

Median home price in Santa Cruz was $750,000 back then and it’s almost $1 million now. What happened in the 1990s in California is happening here — right before our eyes.

My family and I have grown to love Cascadia, but we wonder if our children will be able to stay here if they want.

There are no easy solutions. But this election will decide who addresses those problems.

Holding candidates accountable is my job. But the community’s stake in these decisions is vital. Please take the time to answer a few questions on our form so The Bellingham Herald can get you the information you need before you vote.

Follow more of our reporting on News and information for voters in Whatcom County

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Robert Mittendorf covers civic issues, weather, traffic and how people are coping with the high cost of housing for The Bellingham Herald. A journalist since 1984, he’s also a volunteer firefighter for South Whatcom Fire Authority.