The Bellingham comprehensive plan update process is coming to a close, the culmination of more than 16 months of work by planning staff, City Council and the public. A large portion of that work involves how we as a community will utilize our land to meet anticipated housing needs in the next 20 years.
The city declared an affordable housing crisis in 2012; however, Bellingham still ranks nearly last in Washington state for housing affordability. Whatcom County, according to the Washington Affordable Housing Advisory Committee, is second out of 39 counties for least affordable owner-occupied housing and ninth for least affordable rental units. In our county, particularly in Bellingham, we have a median home value that is 7.3 times greater than median income, making us one of the least affordable areas in the country. For comparison, the percentage of affordable, owner-occupied housing in Seattle and Spokane is 51 percent and 72 percent respectively – Bellingham is at 31.9 percent . With statistics like those, it is no surprise that Bellingham is a city of renters with only 43 percent of Bellingham citizens owning their home.
How does the city create affordable housing without adding additional land? The city’s answer is urban villages, high-density housing (apartments/condos) in mixed-use developments shared with public transit and pedestrian amenities. Construction of urban villages is a valid planning strategy only if the economy, demographics and land ownership patterns make such projects feasible. The Whatcom Affordable Housing Group commissioned a study by Michael Luis, a housing researcher, to determine whether urban villages were a solution to our affordable housing crisis. With two exceptions, Luis concludes that urban villages are not the answer we seek.
The economics in Bellingham do not support urban villages. The market rate rent in Bellingham is around $1.20 per square foot; however, Luis demonstrates that successful urban village projects built to Bellingham standards require rent in the area of $1.70-$2 per square foot. Except for Fairhaven and Barkley Village, areas that support that rent, who is going to build a project at a monthly loss of nearly 50 cents a square foot?
Bellingham planning staff use millennials and retirees as the primary demographics seeking dense urban living. As Luis’ report shows, the types of millennials and retirees desiring apartments in a robust urban environment are highly paid technology workers or very affluent retirees; Bellingham has few of either.
Bellingham millennials are not the highly paid technology workers populating Seattle’s South Lake Union or Silicon Valley but instead tend to be highly skilled graduates of technical schools or undergraduates in less lucrative professions. Our millennials are starting families and looking for homes in established neighborhoods close to good schools – like they remember from their childhood – to raise those families, not homes “three flights up” and close to a favorite nightclub. Recent research by the National Association of Realtors demonstrates 90 percent of millennials plan to purchase a single family home and represent 68 percent of all first-time homebuyers. Indeed, those homes the millennials desire are occupied by the retirees that live in our county.
Likewise, most Bellingham seniors are neither choosing an “urban lifestyle” nor affluent. We know that 75 percent of elderly rental households in Whatcom County are low-income and unable to afford the rents necessary for successful urban villages. Jefferson County, with a much greater population of wealthy retirees, has no urban villages.
Finally, Luis illustrates that Bellingham proposes urban villages in many older neighborhoods with land held by different owners and already developed. If you want to see what fractured ownership does to urban village projects, just look to the city’s recent effort to place a development on Army Street in the downtown core. Again, only Fairhaven and Barkley Village, with land ownership held by a few key individuals, favors urban village planning.
The lack of affordable housing has created a sprawl issue as Bellingham has captured less than half of new county population growth in the past few years, a circumstance concurrent with comprehensive plans focused on urban villages and increased apartment development with little or no attempt to plan for single-family detached housing. The result is increased pressure to develop our farmland and watershed lands, something I hope we all agree is undesirable.
R. Perry Eskridge is executive officer and government affairs director for the Whatcom County Association of Realtors.