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Planning Commission hears agenda for lowering housing costs

By Riley Kankelberg

The city of Bellingham directed the Planning and Community Development Department staff to “leave no stone unturned” when searching for solutions to Bellingham’s housing crisis.

On Thursday Jan. 9, the Planning and Community Development Department presented options for increasing housing opportunities.

The presentation focused on zoning for multi-family units such as duplexes, triplexes and townhouses, which would offer more space and options for Bellingham residents. Once the presentation was finished, the conversation turned to the commission’s concerns about the timeline of the project.

“It’s important to us to have folks who live and work in town, not a commuter community, not one that displaces any one group,” Rick Sepler, director of the Planning and Community Development Department, said. To do this, the department is hoping to increase the residential density of their multi-family zones. These are areas the city specifically zoned for those multi-family housing units.

Nearly half  —  47.6 percent  —  of the city’s housing is single-family homes; 50.1 percent is multi-family, according to the city of Bellingham Estimated Population and Housing Unit Model. Continuing to use these multi-family zones for their intended purpose would allow more housing units per acre of land. Using that land for less expensive multi-family units would increase the amount of both housing availability and affordability, planners hope.

The department estimated the project would take 18 months to complete. Committee member Ali Taysi suggested declaring an emergency to speed up the timeline, citing the steadily rising price of housing.

“I saw an article in the Herald a couple days ago that now the average single-family home price is above [$400,000],” he said. “It’s going up; it’s getting worse . . . the sooner we deal with them, the sooner we’re going to be suited to address the issue.”

Taysi said he was concerned with the project’s timeline.

“That’s not quickly in the context of what’s going on in our community,” he said. “I don’t believe 18 months is quick at all, and if we wait 18 months to do this and take another 18 months to do the next one and take another 18 months to redo the design standard, it’s going to be five years from now. Our middle class people are going to be that much worse off.”

The Planning and Community Development Department wanted to discourage tearing down buildings. Committee member Mike Estes encouraged the department to widen its horizons a little more.

“I don’t want us to look at this as what can we solely do in the vacant lands,” Estes said. “There are teardowns in single family homes, there are teardowns in multi-family zones. That happens, and I think we should acknowledge that and factor that in.”

In response to these concerns, Sepler explained to the committee that the goal of the project was to keep the balance between the need for new housing and preserving Bellingham.

“There’s a photo in the mayor’s boardroom that shows Cornwall, and it shows all the homes that are around Cornwall, and it was taken in 1890 or early 1900s,” Sepler said, “None of those homes are present any longer. Things evolve, uses change. Our concern is that there always will be redevelopment. We are just trying to preserve some of the character in some of the areas we have, so it’s just a question of how much will occur.”

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