A Big “Never Mind”

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Wed, Aug 31, 2016, 4:59 am  //  Guest writer

April Barker on video at 50:47 in her speech explaining how the community does not "get" the process but the council does.

Anne Mackie guest writes.  Anne has lived in the York neighborhood for many years and is a community leader on issues of neighborhood planning.

Saturday Night Live’s Roseanne Roseanna Dana said it best: “Never Mind.”  And, that’s what we saw at City Council August 29 when Council member April Barker moved to rescind the vote that on August 1 had removed, from the Comp Plan’s Housing Chapter, the owner-occupancy requirement for ADUs in single-family neighborhoods.  A big “Never Mind.”

Backing Barker’s motion to rescind were Council members Dan Hammill, Pinky Vargas, and Roxanne Murphy who all had previously jumped on board Barker’s infill wagon with the notion to allow ADUs in single-family neighborhoods as an added bonus unit for absentee landlords.  After a two-week raging social media campaign of rebellion by neighborhood advocates against the idea, Barker, Hammill, Vargas and Murphy reversed their votes with a big “Never Mind.” Council member Gene Knutson, who voted against the original motion, had warned those voting “Yes” that there would be “wrath from the neighborhoods” for their original vote, and correct he was. 

With the motion to rescind on August 29, which received a unanimous vote of the Council, the Comp Plan policy language on ADUs reverts back to the recommendations of the Planning Commission, keeping the owner-occupancy requirement for ADUs in single-family neighborhoods in place as the Plan moves forward to Council’s Public Hearing on October 17.

A large crowd showed up at City Hall the evening of August 29, evidence of how powerful a social media campaign can be. Many were first-time attendees who usually follow the blog NextDoor looking for a lost dog, wanting to sell a coffee table, or just connecting socially.  That blog, along with NW Citizen, churned the airwaves about what was going on down at City Hall.

Now, a new level of awareness can be shared if, and when, a council member tests the waters with an ill-conceived idea; there can be swift reaction. Barker told the citizens that her error was about, “being a new Council member,” and she said she “was reminded of what a heated issue this is for people.” Welcome to Bellingham!

But is the door closed on this idea of threatening single-family zoning? Absolutely not. Councilor Roxanne Murphy said maybe we can get those units in place, then future councils can wrestle with it. But for now, she wants us all to just get along.

“Please community, work with us on this,” Murphy said during the August 29 afternoon council meeting.  Perhaps the Council needs to work with the community, instead.

Bellingham neighborhood activists have been engaged for over 20 years in neighborhood plan updates, rezones, visioning conferences, and planning academies and have pasted more yellow stickies on charrette idea-boards than they ever want to remember. Perhaps the new Council members need to do some Planning 101 homework, themselves, or at a minimum review the past six months of Planning Commission videos of work sessions on the Comp Plan.  The community was very engaged.

In her speech to rescind the original August 1 motion, Barker complained about “a yarn being spun,” out in the community; her ideas were “misconstrued”; there was “misinformation” out there; or people didn’t understand the process. This kind of deflection of responsibility for an ill-conceived action does not help “calm the community,” as Barker says she wants to do; nor does it move us closer to being a unified, problem-solving community.

August 2016 can be remembered as the big “Never Mind” month. Let’s hope September and October get us back on track, tackling real solutions to our community housing crisis.

Related Links:

-> Video of Aug 29 Committee of Whole meeting with April's speech
-> The 2016 Spring WAMS report that is cited for housing statistics.

David Camp  //  Wed, Aug 31, 2016, 8:11 am

Thanks, Anne, for spending so much time and energy on this and other neighborhood issues - and suffering the slings and arrows of disrespect and attempts to ignore and shutdown from the people who we elected to listen and represent. And good work at organizing enough citizen involvement to get the thing overturned.

However - “is our politicians learning”? Not in evidence and so we can probably expect this issue will come up again - perhaps once we little people have been properly re-educated about how we are wrong and just don’t get the process.

Tim Paxton  //  Wed, Aug 31, 2016, 8:33 am

A little sun light and the idea of sneaking through a major ADU land use vote goes down in flames.

The City Legal staff needs to apologize to the Council, right before they are replaced.  I am pretty sure secret agenda items are not a feature of the Growth Management Act requirements for comprehensive plans.

Tip Johnson  //  Wed, Aug 31, 2016, 9:05 am


Ms. Barker can’t live in three places at once but apparently favors additional rental units on her properties.  She should recuse herself from any further voting on this topic.  To potentially gain financially from one’s own proposal is a conflict of interest and should prompt disclosure and abstention.

Larry Horowitz  //  Wed, Aug 31, 2016, 11:12 am

As Mark Twain reminded us: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”  And so it is with the Bellingham vacancy rate, purported by Councilmember Dan Hammill to be 0.2%.

I have asked Dan Hammill to cite the source of the 0.2% vacancy rate, but I have not yet heard back from him.  Based on information presented by Councilmember Pinky Vargas, it appears that Hammill’s information comes from the Spring 2016 Washington Apartment Market Survey (WAMS) produced by the Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies, whose stated purpose is to “prepare tomorrow’s real estate leaders today.”

I’m concerned about Council’s use of this survey to make its determination, as Hammill suggests, that Bellingham is in the midst of a ‘housing emergency’.  Perhaps we are, but is Council relying on accurate information?  A few questions about the Spring 2016 WAMS:

1) Does the WAMS provide information specific to Bellingham or is it a countywide survey?
Answer: The survey provides information for Whatcom County, not specifically for Bellingham.

2) What percentage of apartments in the county are reflected in the Spring 2016 WAMS?
Answer: For Whatcom County, only 8% of all apartments responded: 1,315 of 16,375 apartments.  By contrast, the King County response rate was 64% (153,575 out of 240,182).

3) Does a survey with 8% self-responders (as opposed to validly sampled) provide a statistically reliable result?

4) Does the WAMS consider houses or condos available for rent?  Or does it only consider apartments?
Answer: Only apartments.

5) Does the WAMS consider condos or houses available for sale?
Answer: No, only apartments available for rent.

6) What was the Whatcom County vacancy rate for the 8% of the apartments that responded (1,315 out of 16,375)?
Answer: 0.8% (11 out of 1,315)

During the Aug 29 Committee of the Whole meeting, Dan Hammill stated, “Locally, our vacancy rate has plummeted to 0.2%.  Put another way, 99.8% of all Bellingham housing is not for sale or rent, and most people can’t afford to rent or buy what little there is available.”

I assume when Dan said 0.2%, he actually meant 0.8%.  Unfortunately, Dan’s interpolated conclusion that 99.8% of all Bellingham housing is not for sale or rent is entirely unsupported. 

First, the WAMS is a countywide survey, not Bellingham specific.

Second, the WAMS is silent as to houses and condos for sale or for rent, so no conclusion at all can be made regarding houses and condos.

Third, the 8% response rate of self-responders is entirely inadequate for any conclusion to be made.

Bellingham City Councilmembers are basing a whole host of housing decisions on unreliable, inadequate information.  If they truly hope to have neighborhood cooperation and buy-in, they must stop insulting our intelligence and start using better information.

Click + Link to see the Spring 2016 WAMS.

Larry Horowitz  //  Wed, Aug 31, 2016, 2:25 pm

If a reliable source is to be believed, then Dan Hammill’s agenda has less to do with Bellingham’s vacancy rate and more to do with housing affordability.  If that’s the case, then perhaps Dan will be more straightforward with us going forward.  By presenting potentially false dilemmas, stakeholders are sent on a wild goose chase rather than work collaboratively toward a common goal.

If the main issue is housing affordability rather than the vacancy rate, then the task at hand is to clearly define the problem and seek stakeholder agreement.  Only then can effective solutions be developed.  Currently, the affordable housing problem is not well defined.

1) Who are we talking about? 
a) Are they long-time residents who have a place to live but still cannot afford a place to own?
b) Are they WWU students who just graduated and decided to stay? 
c) Are they people who just moved here but didn’t have a job when they came?
d) Are they people who moved here with a job, but the job didn’t pay enough and they didn’t consider housing before accepting?
e) Is it someone else?

2) How did they get into a situation where they live here and but cannot afford to?
a) Did they lose their job?
b) Did they get sick or hurt?
c) Did they start a family and incur additional expense?
d) Did one of the two earners quit their job?

3) To what extent will the hundreds of apartments under construction alleviate these problems by freeing up other housing currently occupied by students?

I have heard rumors that rental prices in Bellingham are inelastic and appear to be controlled by some sort of rent overlord. 
- Is this accurate? 
- How is that even possible given the number of competitors in the rental market? 
- If true, what can be done about that?

Is it possible for all stakeholders to come together and leave their biases, especially those driven by the profit incentive, at the door?

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