Local Election

How the candidates for mayor plan to solve Bellingham’s housing crisis

Here’s what Bellingham’s mayor does

Kelli Linville describes on June 20, 2019, the duties of mayor in Bellingham, Wash. She's retiring after two four-year terms as mayor. Four candidates are seeking election to the post.
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Kelli Linville describes on June 20, 2019, the duties of mayor in Bellingham, Wash. She's retiring after two four-year terms as mayor. Four candidates are seeking election to the post.

Every candidate for Bellingham mayor understands that housing affordability is one of the most critical issues facing the city.

Skyrocketing home prices and the rising cost of rent — along with homelessness and climate change — were among the top concerns of Bellingham Herald readers who responded to our recent survey about issues in the 2019 election in Bellingham and Whatcom County.

Bellingham’s 2018 Residential Survey Report, conducted by the Center for Economic and Business Research at Western Washington University, showed that homelessness and housing were the top concerns of residents citywide.

And housing costs just keep climbing in Bellingham and across the Northwest.

Median price of homes sold in Whatcom County rose 5% to $383,400 in the first quarter of 2019, according to an April report from Troy Muljat of Muljat Group Realtors.

In Bellingham, home prices jumped 14% 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” — the working poor. Only about 60% of Whatcom County residents were outside the ALICE standard.

Two candidates for Bellingham City Council identify themselves as homeless or without permanent housing. Both have college degrees.

Washington residents must earn $26.87 an hour to afford the average two-bedroom apartment — more than double the state minimum wage of $12 an hour, according to the 2018 “Out of Reach” report.

An October 2018 survey by mortgage company Freddie Mac showed that 66 percent of renters nationwide had trouble affording their monthly rent and that 78 percent of renters thought that buying a home was unaffordable — a figure that rose 11 percent in six months.

“Wages have simply not kept up with the cost of housing, and many people moving here can afford to pay more,” candidate Seth Fleetwood said. “With effort, these dynamics can change over time but not immediately. The housing market is not delivering in Bellingham for too many of us.”

That concern about housing affordability is shared among all the other candidates — home builder Garrett O’Brien and City Council members April Barker and Pinky Vargas.

State Rep. Sharon Shewmake, D-Bellingham, an associate professor of economics at Western Washington University, said the key to providing workforce housing isn’t simply supply and demand.


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Building more homes is a key part of the solution, Shewmake said in an interview with The Bellingham Herald, but it’s linked to zoning and density, mass transit, alternative transportation and other issues.

Shewmake, who specializes in environmental, housing and transportation economics, said the candidates must be able to consider the city as a whole.

“You’ll have to ask them, ‘Will you be able to make hard decisions, even if the neighborhood objects?’ ” Shewmake said.

She used her Lettered Streets neighborhood as an example, saying that it could support a more diverse mix of housing, including townhomes, duplexes and small apartment buildings of four to eight units amid what’s now mostly single-family homes.

Bellingham’s move last year to ease rules restricting backyard cottages was a step in the right direction, she said, and added that the city ought to consider changing its rule against three unrelated people living in one house.

Many cities around the county are considering just such ideas to solve similar affordability problems, according to a recent article in The New York Times.

It’s thought that adding a broad range of housing choices throughout the city — a concept called the “missing middle” — can help governments address such diverse issues as climate change, income inequality and homelessness.

In interviews, public statements and emails recently, the four candidates shared their plans for addressing the housing crisis:

Bellingham City Council member April Barker, who’s running for Bellingham mayor, speaks during a June 19 candidate forum sponsored by the Downtown Bellingham Partnership at the Whatcom Museum. Robert Mittendorf The Bellingham Herald

April Barker

“We have been polarized on housing and we have to come together,” Barker said at a recent forum sponsored by the Downtown Bellingham Partnership. “We have some serious issues ahead of us and housing is at the root of it. “

In an interview, Barker said new growth should be spread throughout the entire city.

“We have to build those homes in every corner of Bellingham,” she said. “We need to make sure we have housing around every school. That will really compliment the Bellingham Promise,” which is the school district’s commitment to educational equality.

As head of the city’s Planning and Community Development Committee, Barker is working to develop a housing equity assessment to ensure there’s an “economic mix” of housing types.

“We have to balance our commitment so that every socio-economic group has access to every neighborhood,” Barker said. “This study will take the politics out of the issue and help us make plans based on data.”

She cited her work with the Whatcom Housing Alliance as an example of a way to offer housing diversity.

Barker said the problem requires a bit of reverse engineering.

“What are the jobs that we have and what is the housing that we need to build for those jobs?” she said. “Our families really need to feel like they have a next step — a sense of opportunity. When you close that off, you lose more than you realize as a city.”

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Bellingham lawyer Seth Fleetwood, left, and home builder Garrett O’Brien, who are running for Bellingham mayor, chat after a June 19 candidate forum sponsored by the Downtown Bellingham Partnership at the Whatcom Museum. Robert Mittendorf The Bellingham Herald

Seth Fleetwood

“The city can do more by working with developers who build homes that remain permanently affordable,” said Fleetwood, an attorney and two-term Bellingham City Council member and two-term Whatcom County Council member.

“Private business owners increasingly report they can’t recruit good workers because of this issue,” he said. “A critical and necessary method to deliver affordability to half our residents who are at or below area median income is to collaborate with developers who build non-market-rate housing that is made permanently affordable by virtue of a one-time subsidy. The question then becomes by what means our housing sectors can generate a funding source to provide a subsidy. Fortunately, a growing number of innovative means is allowing us to generate funds to assist in that regard. Under this framework we can expand non-market rate, permanently affordable homes to a number that meets the needs of people who live and work here already.”

At a recent forum sponsored by the Downtown Bellingham Association, Fleetwood said that the city should avoid urban sprawl, and that the downtown core will accommodate “a significant part” of new growth.

“It’s clear that the future of Bellingham is going to require tall buildings,” he said.

Garrett O’Brien

“When I was growing up in Bellingham, housing was a cost, but it wasn’t a burden,” O’Brien said in an interview with The Herald. “We’ve really been undersupplied for so long that we kind of think it’s normal.”

O’Brien said his experience as a home builder and as a member of the city’s Planning and Community Development Commission has given him a unique perspective on the topic.

He said he would streamline the permitting process, partner with the three local colleges to help provide student housing, focus on infill development and mixed-use housing in the city’s urban villages, and use incentives for mixed-income developments that would ensure a range of incomes across each neighborhood.

His campaign video addresses the housing crisis and illustrates how he would solve it, using examples of multi-unit housing he has built.

He also introduces his proposed Housing Innovation Project, which would combine the efforts of the city, private developers and nonprofits to provide permanently affordable housing.

“If we stay on our current pace, we’ll have about 400 affordable new units in 10 years,” he said. “The challenge is, we need 4,000 units. Today. We have to do something now.”

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Bellingham City Council member Pinky Vargas, left, and home builder Garrett O’Brien, who are running for Bellingham mayor, chat before a June 19 candidate forum sponsored by the Downtown Bellingham Partnership at the Whatcom Museum. Robert Mittendorf The Bellingham Herald

Pinky Vargas

“We absolutely need housing of all types and all affordabilities. We have a very diverse population,” Vargas said at the Downtown Association forum.

Vargas said that she would use the Bellingham Home Fund and create public-private partnerships to build affordable housing and market-rate housing.

“Smart growth is what we have to do, and strategically working on density instead of sprawl is of utmost importance,” she said.

She said she’s particularly focused on “workforce housing” for people who move to Bellingham for jobs.

“It’s where I think we can make the biggest impact,” she said.

Vargas suggested that the city should have a staff member who can explain the planning process and help residents as they seek to build, remodel or add to their property. She also favors ending the city’s ban on more than three unrelated people living in a single home.

“I think we need to get rid of it,” she said. “I think we need to offer more opportunities for people to share housing.”

With 136 public offices on the ballot this August, you’ll want to pay attention to these changes as Election Day approaches.

Fleetwood’s comment about people moving here was corrected July 3, 2019.

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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.