Meeting the housing need: four suggestions for comprehensive planning - Salish Current
May 21, 2024
Meeting the housing need: four suggestions for comprehensive planning
Garrett O'Brien

With supportive building regulations, townhouses such as these under construction in North Bellingham play a bigger part in relieving the city’s housing shortage, a commentator says. (Amy Nelson / Salish Current © 2024)

May 21, 2024
Meeting the housing need: four suggestions for comprehensive planning
Garrett O'Brien


The essays, analyses and opinions presented as Community Voices express the perspectives of their authors on topics of interest and importance to the community, and are not intended to reflect perspectives on behalf of the Salish Current.

Commentary: Our current lack of available and affordable housing has taken years to develop, and correcting the problem will take a sustained community effort.

To significantly enhance housing options for our community members, we must look ahead while acknowledging past missteps. The current lack of buildable lands and restrictive development regulations in our urban areas have hindered housing production and pushed development into smaller communities and rural areas, contradicting important anti-sprawl goals. By planning for both accelerating population growth and the accrued housing deficit, we can pave the way for a more balanced and sustainable future.

For readers cringing at the prospect of continual growth who would rather hang a “no vacancy” sign somewhere along Interstate 5: as paradoxical as it might seem, I feel the same way. However, Washington state law will not allow this. State lawmakers recently enacted sweeping changes to land use zoning laws and will require jurisdictions to be fully compliant by 2026. The following policy recommendations are practical suggestions for residents and their policymakers to consider during this important community planning effort. 

Restructure Urban Growth Areas (UGAs)

UGAs that border city boundaries are designated to accommodate future growth. Many of these areas are currently developed with low density housing and are also ecologically significant. Bellingham currently has UGAs located in both the Lake Whatcom and Lake Padden watersheds, which are not appropriate for higher density development. These areas should be removed from the UGAs and replaced with areas that can accommodate future growth and a variety of housing types.

A comprehensive analysis of city borderlands needs to be conducted, accounting for ecological, infrastructure and municipal service constraints. New UGAs should be selected based on the highest projected yield of future housing.

Incentivize condominiums

The past several years have seen an explosion of new apartment construction, with renters paying the equivalent of a $350K mortgage to occupy them. The persistently low apartment vacancy rate suggests many would-be homebuyers at the $350K price point are excluded from homeownership due to the lack of supply.

Urban density condominium homes are one of the few housing types that can fill this need. Policymakers should consult with apartment developers to better understand the barriers that limit condominium development and develop a suite of incentives to overcome them. 

Washington State allows property tax exemptions for multifamily housing construction in targeted residential areas. The tax exemption can be granted for eight years without restrictions and up to 20 years for housing that meets affordability requirements.

In 2021 the Legislature amended this program to allow smaller cities to participate while also allowing jurisdictions more flexibility to condition the use of the program. Local control presents cities and towns an opportunity to establish designated condominium overlay zones that encourage the development and sale of condominiums.

In addition to the state’s property tax exemption, cities could develop a suite of tiered incentives to promote affordable units, including density, floor area, height bonuses, parking reductions, impact fee waivers and expedited permit review. These incentives can offset development costs and make it more financially feasible for developers to build affordable housing.

Promote townhomes

Currently undersupplied in our housing stock, townhomes are a traditional housing form that elegantly lines the streets of historic cities from London to San Francisco. Development regulations often found in auto-centric cities unnecessarily prevent townhomes from being built.

This comprehensive planning cycle presents an excellent opportunity for creativity to be infused into our land use by creating townhome corridors that allow this desirable housing form to be built. Townhome corridors should be located along high-frequency transit routes, near parks and along city blocks with alley access. To encourage redevelopment of identified townhome corridors, cities should promote townhome construction by reducing front yard setbacks, allowing increased lot coverage and reducing parking requirements. 

Increase transportation alternatives 

Transportation expenses are second only to housing for most people. The cost of purchasing, fueling, insuring, and maintaining one or more vehicles burdens most households. Planning for the future should include a dramatic effort to increase transportation alternatives to the automobile. Investments should be made in public fiber networks to provide the cyber infrastructure that will be the highway of the future.

Parking requirements for new development should be offered pay-in-lieu of options that fund future transit projects. Incentives should be aligned to promote covered bus stops, transit passes for new development and continued prioritization of bicycle infrastructure.

The policy recommendations outlined here — revamping urban growth areas, creating incentives for condominiums and townhomes and expanding transportation choices — represent a holistic approach to increasing our housing supply and diversity. Undertaking these policies during this comprehensive planning cycle is crucial for addressing our region’s housing needs and promoting balanced growth. Residents should attend public meetings and provide input to ensure the comprehensive plan reflects the community’s needs and values.

— By Garrett O’Brien

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