Regarding Housing and Land Use Policies on Bainbridge Island

Jon Quitslund

At the Planning Commission’s next meeting (June 9th), we’ll complete work on a draft of the Housing element and take another look at proposed revisions to the Guiding Principles and Policies.

Later in the month – there are meetings on the 16th and the 23rd – we’ll revisit the Land Use element, which (after the introductory parts of the Plan) provides the foundation for what has followed in the drafting process. Now Land Use can be revised to improve consistency with those later elements – Housing among them.

In the Comp Plan from 2004, the Goals and Policies of the Housing element don’t fill six pages. Everything set down in 2004 was sound and well-intentioned, but in the intervening years, despite good work by Housing Resources Bainbridge and other advocates for affordable housing, and with a deep recession that depressed home prices and building activity, the need for housing that will suit the diverse community that Bainbridge wants to be has only become more urgent.

The 2004 Housing element states that “between 1990 and 2003 the average Bainbridge Island home price escalated dramatically from $232,687 to $478,000.” And today? “The average single-family home price is just under $700,000.”

Taking into account that and other facts about the Island’s housing stock, the market, and the demographics of our population, the updated Housing element is much more resourceful and imaginative than the old one. It remains to be seen how many of the good ideas can be implemented.

The first Goal and the associated Policies establish several targets for the next twenty years. For example: Decrease to 20% or less the number of cost burdened families living in rental housing (down from 40%); decrease to 18% or less the number of cost burdened families owning homes (down from 34%). And: Increase the number of rental housing units to at least 11% of total housing units (up from 7%); increase the Island’s percentage of multifamily homes to 18% or more of all homes (up from 16%).

Do you know what it means to be “cost burdened”? Conventionally, at least since 1981, that term applies if housing costs (rent or mortgage + utilities) are above 30% of household income. The burden is greatest for low income individuals and families in market-rate rental housing, and there is too little rental housing of any kind.

(A recent cost burden analysis done for the Portland, Oregon Metro Area considers only renters to be cost burdened. It also includes transportation costs, and raises the bar to 45% of income.)

A very thorough Housing Needs Assessment was completed for the City in December of 2015; this study’s statistics and analysis form the basis for the Housing element. According to the HNA, 34% of owner-occupied households are cost burdened. This percentage includes a fair number of households with incomes well above average, which is not surprising, considering the high prices of Bainbridge real estate. (With a good and reliable income, paying over 30% of it to own a home is apt to be a good investment strategy.)

The problem is that many people in the Island’s workforce – people we rely on every day for all sorts of services – can’t afford to live on Bainbridge. (And that’s just one problem among several that have never been dealt with successfully.) One of the policy statements under Goal One sets a target: “Achieve a jobs-housing balance of .8 (up from 0.59).”

Should the City be doing more than designing policies that support the development of housing for low-income individuals and families, and for moderate-income participants in the Island’s workforce who want to live near where they work?

I’ll put it more bluntly: should the City invest money, as well as staff time and a certain amount of political will, in programs that will make a real difference in the Island’s housing stock and its affordability?

One of my best friends answers “No” to this question, saying that affordable housing, like many other good things we rely upon, doesn’t fall within the core functions of local government, for which only the government bears responsibility.

I disagree, and I think it’s time to look again at the question. Are there not some opportunities for public / private partnerships, for ‘priming the pump’ or matching funds that are raised through charitable contributions to a capital campaign?

Nothing in the Comprehensive Plan will stand or fall on responses to this question, but I hope that the City Manager and the Council will give it serious consideration.

I’ll put the question in a broad context, with reference to an article recently brought to my attention, published by the International City/County Management Association (ICMA). In 2009, ICMA’s Economic Development Survey found that of the local governments responding to the survey, 14.1% found that “high housing costs represented a barrier to economic development.” A follow-up survey in 2014 found that 30.6% of responding governments “saw high housing costs as either a ‘medium’ or ‘high’ barrier to economic development.”

Further, ICMA reports that “among communities with a housing affordability program, 41.2% of these programs were supported by local government funding.”

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Having said this much, I have to end this post abruptly. I’m traveling tomorrow, and I’ll return in a few days, to complete a second part of this essay as soon as I can. Stay tuned.

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