Opening the door to affordable housing

PART ONE OF FOUR

 

John Harmon, executive director and CEO of the Bellingham/Whatcom County Housing Authorities, has 50 affordable housing units under construction at Walton Place, the site of the former Walton Beverage facility on North State Street.

 

Many people dream of their very own piece of the pie — a home to call their own.

Maybe it’s a condo with floor-to-ceiling windows in an urban skyscraper or a cozy Victorian in the country with a garden and a porch swing.

The form is not important. Owning a home is more than possessing a collection of studs and drywall.

Owning a home is about power.

Homeowners have a solid, tangible investment that garners tax benefits, additional credit and an overall chance at vertical economic mobility.

Sadly, too many Whatcom County residents are falling short of this dream, however. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the average household should pay no more than 30 percent of its total income for all housing costs, which includes rent or mortgage payments, utilities, insurance and other related incidentals.

Currently in Whatcom County, 25 percent or 19,157 households are paying more than 30 percent of their income for housing; 14 percent or 10,381 households are paying more than 50 percent. Last year, local leaders decided this is too high a price to pay.

In early 2007, then-interim Bellingham Mayor Tim Douglas and Whatcom County Executive Pete Kremen brought together the best minds in the county from local government, the real estate and development community, local housing authorities, housing nonprofits and local activist organizations to create the Countywide Housing Affordability Taskforce (CHAT).

The group held 40 meetings over approximately 18 months to discuss the affordable housing issue in Whatcom County and specify action items to recommend to local government. The culmination of this unprecedented work was finally compiled in a comprehensive report and released to the public on Sept. 19.

 

Whatcom’s housing woes

Seth Fleetwood, vice-chairman of the Whatcom County Council and co-chair of CHAT along with Bellingham City Councilman Terry Bornemann, laid the county’s issues out in broad terms.

Fleetwood said the average household income in Whatcom County is approximately $50,000 a year, the average mortgage typically obtained at that income is approximately $150,000, and the amount of housing being built to address that need is 1 percent.

“That just lays it out,” Fleetwood said. “Many of the people that live and work here can’t afford a house here.”

Kremen said one of the major contributing factors to Whatcom’s affordability issues is the disparity between the cost of housing, the availability of housing and the wages in the general community.

“We have lower than average wages and we have higher than average housing costs. That’s not a good combination,” Kremen said. Additionally, Kremen said a high percentage of retirees and students only put gas on the fire.

“You add those factors in and it exacerbates the problem,” Kremen said. “It is my understanding that, at one time, we had the highest percentage of residences that were unable to qualify for a home loan in the state.”

 

Lessons from Boulder

The seeds for CHAT were planted after a trip to Boulder during the height of the housing boom a couple of years ago.

In April 2006, Fleetwood was talking to his friend Greg Winter, former board president for the Kulshan Community Land Trust, about getting together a group of council members and developers to go on a trip to Boulder, Colo. to meet with public officials and experts who gained knowledge and valuable perspective taming their own affordable housing crisis.

“We put something together within a couple of months and it was a great tour,” Fleetwood said. “We lined up really good people on the ground in Boulder.”

Afterward, Fleetwood, said, many of those on the trip became inspired to address this complicated issue.

Right after the tour, Fleetwood said, he was looking for a way to jumpstart a housing affordability dialog. So both he and late City Councilwoman Joan Beardsley proposed an amendment and a resolution, respectively, in favor of inclusionary zoning, a funding mechanism where home developers subsidize affordable housing with profits from market-value units. For example, developers could subsidize one permanently affordable home for every four sold at fair market value.

“We learned that it had been tried in other areas,” Fleetwood said. “But I just wanted to put something out there to get the conversation going. And that certainly got the conversation going.”

Ralph Black, a local developer and owner of Alliance Properties, said he had several concerns about inclusionary zoning, however, which he views as a thinly veiled development tax.

Something Black said he heard loud and clear on the Boulder trip was that when developers fund affordable housing at a loss, the market-rate units get more expensive to recoup the loss, effectively making homes less affordable.

Black also said inclusionary zoning puts “the whole burden for solving this problem on the developer.”

“If this is a community problem, then the solution should be community-wide and we should all participate in that solution,” Black said.

Later in the fall of 2006, Fleetwood said money was placed in the city and county budgets to pay for a more in-depth look at inclusionary zoning and Whatcom’s affordable housing problems — and just like that, CHAT was born.

 

Crafting a housing action plan

For nearly 18 months, the CHAT group worked with La Conner-based planning consultants Beckwith Consulting Group to understand the local issues, those at work on those issues and local voter priorities in an effort to develop a feasible county-wide strategy.

On Sept. 19, the CHAT group came out with its final report, which was recently presented to the City and County councils. The report contains six major recommendations: create a housing action plan organization, create a housing trust fund, strive to reduce land and building costs, provide incentives for the development of affordable housing, retain older housing stock and retain and replace mobile and manufactured homes.

John Harmon, CHAT member and executive director of the Bellingham/Whatcom County Housing Authorities, said he felt the two most important recommendations are the creation of a housing action plan organization, which would essentially be a continuation of CHAT, and the creation of a housing trust fund, which Harmon said could be a bit more problematic.

“With the economy in the state that it’s in, everybody has to face a political reality of what can be done and what would be accepted by the voters,” Harmon said. “But I think eventually it will happen.”

Black said he is also in favor of CHAT’s continuation as an advisory board that can adjust to market trends as the issue evolves.

“Our group could recommend policies that are perfectly appropriate right now but later become obsolete,” Black said. ”The housing market is a dynamic and changing situation.”

In the course of CHAT meetings, the members reviewed a mail-out/phone survey of 200 county-wide registered voter households that revealed that while affordable housing was an issue of concern, the likelihood of county residents passing a tax to pay for it is pretty slim.

Kremen also said funding some of CHAT’s recommendations could be a problem because in tough economic times, the county needs to be especially careful how it spends taxpayer money.

“The costs of running government continue to increase, so we are going to have to be very limited with the way we can inject new monies for new causes in addition to the already daunting mandated essentials for local government,” Kremen said.

Nancy Larsen-Kolakowski, CHAT member and executive director of Whatcom-Skagit Housing, said she felt one of the most important recommendations from the CHAT was to reduce land and building costs.

Larsen-Kolakowski said her organization just finished its third affordable housing subdivision in Whatcom County and the experience gave her a new appreciation for the process.

“There are all these regulations and everything costs so much,” Larsen-Kolakowski said. “When you’ve got lots that cost $130,000 to $150,000 and the maximum mortgages our families qualify for are around $190,000 — that just does not work.”

Black said creating institutionalized incentives for building affordable housing is a good way to attract builders to the cause. Such incentives could include making it easier to get a rezone, waiving impact fees, and allowing sewer and water extension into areas not in the Urban Growth Area. The idea is that lowered overall building costs would mitigate any loss when funding affordable housing units within a development.

“We would get a benefit and the community would benefit as well,” Black said.

Kremen said there is no one solution to such a multi-faceted problem.

“There is no silver bullet,” Kremen said. “I think we need to adopt measures that will have some positive impact in the housing market. In varying degrees, the recommendations adopted by the CHAT need to be implemented as much as reasonably possible and as funding will allow.”

 

To view the CHAT report

  • Go to www.cob.org
  • Click the “Government” tab, then click “Community Planning” under the “Public Involvement” section
  • Click the CHAT link under “Quick Links”
  • Finally click “Material by Meeting Date” to link to the final report

 

This is the first of a four-part series on affordable housing in Whatcom County.

Part 2: What is affordable housing trying to accomplish? (Nov. 3)

Part 3: How do we pay for affordable housing? (Dec. 1)

Part 4: What do we do from here? (Dec. 1)

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