Op-Ed

Tools exist to build low- and middle-income housing. Do we have the will to use them?

The Happy Valley Neighborhood Association got a Project Neighborly Grant from the Whatcom Community Foundation for “Project YIMBY Happy Valley: Yes in My Backyard.” The workshop explored ways to think about adding density to single family-zoned areas.
The Happy Valley Neighborhood Association got a Project Neighborly Grant from the Whatcom Community Foundation for “Project YIMBY Happy Valley: Yes in My Backyard.” The workshop explored ways to think about adding density to single family-zoned areas. The Bellingham Herald

In the Middle Ages, cities like Strasbourg, France, opened their gates to thousands of peasants who were caught in the crossfire of wars ravaging the countryside. Fast forward to 2017, we currently feel caught in a crossfire of housing wars, within and between our various neighborhoods and our cities, as middle- and low-income people struggle to find housing in Bellingham.

There are many reasons not to be a neighborhood that accepts diverse housing, infill growth and diverse populations, even as we consider alternative housing styles to infill single-family zones. But is that really the kind of people and kind of city we want be?

Bellingham, as well as other cities in America, needs to accelerate the ways that we can collectively unlock the barriers to middle- and low-income people who need housing in our city neighborhoods. When my oldest son was born in1980, Bellingham’s population was 45,794. Fast-forward 37 years, Bellingham’s population has almost doubled in size, with 2017’s population at 87,574. The housing supply in our city and my Happy Valley neighborhood has simply not caught up with a more than 2 percent annual population growth rate.

Where I live in Happy Valley we have worked hard to declare our neighborhood as a welcoming neighborhood and would like to see an effort to welcome more smart growth and urban infill opportunities in our community. Last April, the Happy Valley Neighborhood Association got a Project Neighborly Grant from the Whatcom Community Foundation for “Project YIMBY Happy Valley: Yes in My Backyard.” We had a workshop in April to explore ways to think about adding density to our single family-zoned areas. Seattle architect Bill Kreager spoke to our Project YIMBY workshop, where we learned:

▪  Excellent, contextual design is a key to successful infill-density development.

▪  Higher density housing is not meant to replace larger-lot housing. It offers alternatives to large-lot housing.

▪  Density is not measured, density is perceived! It is not the number of units per acre. It is how that number “looks” on that acre!

▪  Codes and design guidelines that work best are not metric-based. They are performance-based.

▪  There should be no minimum lot size!

▪  There is a strong market for density!

▪  Mixing housing densities and types should be encouraged by zoning, not forbidden.

▪  We realize that density is not a panacea for housing affordability.

Important ideas that we learned from our four-month-long Project YIMBY Happy Valley project was:

▪  There is wide support for expanding housing choices for people of all incomes in the Happy Valley neighborhood.

▪  More people are looking to live in walkable neighborhoods, near jobs, transit and services.

▪  It is important for neighborhood groups to work side-by-side with our elected officials, the private sector, landowners and with one another to accelerate change in the housing supply.

You only have to glance at history to see that there are many sound reasons not to do the right thing. And yet, there is always one good reason to say “yes;” to say “we can help out with our housing crisis;” to say “you are welcome here.” Our neighbors, our builders, planners and architects, our educators, our community health specialists and environmentalists tell us to do so. We believe that we can do what we can, even if it is maybe inconvenient or crowded. We must begin by opening our community gates, by saying “Yes. We can help. You are welcome here.”

I encourage our Bellingham planning commissioners and City Council policymakers to support detached accessory dwelling units and use Bellingham’s Infill Toolkit in the single-family zone in Happy Valley and in all Bellingham neighborhoods.

Wendy Scherer is on the board of the Happy Valley Neighborhood Association and has lived in her neighborhood for more than 40 years.

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