CHAT 2 to face infill, land cost issues
Photo by Vincent Aiosa
Editor’s note: Due to a printing error, this story was missing text in the December issue. The full story can be found here. We regret the error.
A lot has happened in the housing market since the County-wide Housing Affordability Task Force (CHAT) first convened in early 2007.
In its infancy, the group was faced with a frenzied home marketplace that had been making record gains in previous years and was still showing signs of high growth. But as 2007 unfolded into 2008, that market came to a standstill.
Today, there are significantly fewer new homes being built and the median home price has dropped from $279,000 in October 2007 to $260,000 in October 2008.
“This county has had an affordable housing problem in some degree for a quarter-century and the housing boom accentuated it,” said County Executive Pete Kremen, who has represented the area at the state and county level since 1985. “Since it burst, though, that has taken some pressure off.”
But all parties agree that the issue of affordable housing won’t go away, even though the current slowing economy may ease the rise of home prices.
“It will be an issue that will once again be a concern, I just don’t know when,” said developer and CHAT member Ralph Black. “The real estate market has almost been self-correcting. But it (affordable housing) will be an issue when the market goes back up.”
In the group’s final report, released in September, the first recommendation it makes is to continue the group — a CHAT 2.0 of sorts. This may seem self-serving, but for an issue as complex as affordable housing, it makes sense.
“Housing is a very dynamic process and we need a group to look at how it’s changing,” Black said. “I think it’s appropriate to look at having a more long-term group. We need to lay the ground work — be proactive, not reactive. Now is a time when we should be looking ahead.”
Will there be a CHAT 2?
Thus far, many of the members of the original group have expressed an interest in continuing on with the group. But before that can happen, they must craft a narrower set of goals.
“I know there’s a commitment to do that, I just don’t know exactly what shape that’s going to take at this point,” said Mayor Dan Pike.
Kremen agreed: “We need them to narrow and prioritize the action items that show the most promise of addressing affordable housing. They’ve provided us with a toolbox that has an abundance of tools to work with.”
Since such a group would be making further recommendations to the city and county councils, both government agencies must agree on the focus of the group. Kremen said he supports a continuation of the CHAT and that he plans to meet with Pike and the group after the holidays to flesh out a detailed plan.
In the meantime, many CHAT members say they will continue to advocate for affordable housing through their own organizations. For Paul Schissler of Kulshan Community Land Trust, that means expanding mortgage gap financing options and promoting higher density infill in some residential areas.
The latter idea is one of contention. Higher density through infill doesn’t necessarily create affordable housing, Schissler admits, but the issues are related.
Infill as affordable housing
Infill housing could be made affordable, but there’s no guarantee, Schissler said.
“Infill housing won’t necessarily be and isn’t guaranteed to be affordable unless there are some incentives,” he said.
For example, new condos in Fairhaven could be considered infill projects, but they are out of the price range for most Whatcom County residents, Schissler said.
Matthei Place, which was designed and built by Kulshan CLT, wouldn’t have been possible without the city’s help. The project received a “demonstration project” status, had some fees waived and a received a streamlined permit process. The city also allowed the organization to build 14 homes on less than an acre of land, something not seen in the surrounding Happy Valley neighborhood.
Photo by Vincent Aiosa
For Schissler, Matthei Place was just the start. He is currently planning a similar development in Ferndale with 40 units, half of which would be available for affordable housing subsidies.
“We’re aiming for a mixed-income neighborhood, so some of the homes will be community land trust homes and others will not be in the land trust,” Schissler said. “But you won’t be able to tell the difference — just like any other neighborhood.”
If he could, Schissler said he would like to make all those homes open to the land trust. But that would require much more funding than what is available.
“There isn’t enough subsidy to make all those homes affordable,” he said, adding that half will be sold at market rate.
While Kulshan CLT is waiting for the housing market to turn around, the organization is busy working with Seattle-based Method Homes to develop a prefabricated home suitable for affordable infill projects.
“Method Homes is helping us develop some plans for factory built homes or homes built onsite that are assembled using wall panels,” Schissler said. “We’re looking for flexibility and options for the construction methods and the floor plans.”
While Schissler is seeking flexibility for his infill project, the Bellingham Planning & Community Development Department is working to provide predictability for future infill projects through the infill toolkit. The toolkit is a list of 13 types of housing, from cottages surrounding a common area to large mixed use buildings.
Like Schissler, planning director Tim Stewart believes that infill and affordable housing are related, but separate issues.
“There is certainly a relationship between affordable housing and infill. It has to do with the availability of land,” Stewart said. “But the infill toolkit probably isn’t going to affect the availability of affordable housing.”
For now, city staff are working to apply the infill toolkit to areas that are already zoned for multifamily residences.
“It could apply to single family areas in the future,” Stewart said. “That’s what we’re hoping will happen. We’ll see how the market reacts.”
But before Bellingham sees any of the 13 types of infill, the city’s development code must first be updated to allow for infill, which requires approval from the City Council. Stewart said his staff should be done with a draft of the infill ordinance by the end of the year. It will be open for public comment for 60 days before moving to the council for final approval.
Affordable quality of life
No matter how the conversation about affordable housing continues, be it infill or prefabricated homes or reducing impact fees, many CHAT members concur that the stage has been set to make progress.
“I think we all agreed that a healthy community makes quality of life affordable for all its citizens. That’s our responsibility,” Schissler said.
Tom Beckwith, one of the consultants who worked with CHAT, has guided other communities through similar discussions about affordable housing. But in his 25 years of work, he said he hasn’t seen a group as dedicated as this one.
“This is a complex issue and everybody in the group brought a different area of expertise,” he said. “I’ve not worked with (a group) that has stayed the course for this long and with this complex a subject. There was no minority report or majority report. They came together as a group to make their recommendations. That’s pretty unusual.”
He said he is also optimistic about what the future holds for the group as they focus their attention on specific items. Wading through the vast number of factors will be difficult though, he said.
“Housing is the most basic of needs besides food and clothing. It’s not like you can pull out one factor and fix everything.”