We’ve heard a lot about the environmental value of the Suzuki property, and the potential ecological impact from development. In comparison, we’ve heard almost nothing about housing access, lack of diversity and other consequences of Bainbridge Island’s affordable housing problems. I don’t want to further polarize people, but I do think a balancing of the factors in the City’s decision would be helpful.
Fair housing is an ideal that emerged from our nation’s civil rights movement. In the 1960’s, a national advisory commission found that both open and covert racial discrimination prevented black families from obtaining better housing and moving to integrated communities. To overcome the legacy of segregation, unequal treatment, and lack of access to opportunity in housing, Congress adopted the Fair Housing Act (FHA).
The FHA outlaws obvious discriminatory practices like exclusionary zoning, discriminatory lending practices and racially restrictive covenants. Over the years, it has been expanded to cover several protected classes, prohibiting housing discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability or the presence of children. Like many states, Washington has its own fair housing laws, and specifies additional protected classes, such as age, sexual orientation, political ideology and source of income.
But discrimination is not always obvious, and last spring, in Texas Dept. of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that housing policies resulting in “disparate impact”—a disproportionately adverse effect on protected classes—violate the law even if there is no intent to discriminate. The Court cited zoning laws and other housing restrictions as examples of actions that may not arise from intentional discrimination, but may nevertheless violate the law because they have a disparate impact on protected classes.
Also last year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) finalized a new rule that gives sharper teeth to the Fair Housing Act, impacting all communities, including our own. This rule requires all agencies receiving HUD money to provide regular reports on actions they have taken to “affirmatively further fair housing.” These reports must be be submitted to HUD for review. This is a more robust standard than the previous requirement to do an “analysis of impediments” to fair housing, which fell short of the goal of increasing housing fairness.
How do these developments affect us locally?
Bainbridge Island receives HUD money through Kitsap County, according to HUD Public Affairs officer Leland Jones. For example, Housing Kitsap–our county’s public housing agency—provides HUD money to islanders who have Section 8 vouchers. Additionally, federal money provided some of the financing for Ferncliff Village, an affordable housing development of our housing nonprofit, Housing Resources Bainbridge (HRB). Thus, the island’s efforts to affirmatively further fair housing must be documented and submitted to HUD under the new rule.
Even before the new rule, there was plenty of publicly available information about regional housing efforts. For example, a 2014 report by the Puget Sound Regional Council said that although most forms of overt housing discrimination are in decline in the Puget Sound region, the impacts of historical unfairness are still evident. The report further noted, “Structural causes of segregation continue to have a pervasive effect across communities, whether or not self-segregation or discrimination are also at play. People are residentially sorted by economic status. High-priced neighborhoods as well as neighborhoods with limited rental housing fail to provide feasible housing choices for low- and-moderate income households.”
Bainbridge Island is deeply afflicted with these structural causes of segregation, and is one of the most racially segregated communities in the entire region. According to our latest Housing Needs Assessment, the population of Bainbridge Island in 2010 (the most recent year for which data is available) was 91% white. Since 1980, minorities have consistently made up less than 10% of the island’s population. Compare this to other Puget Sound suburbs: Shoreline: 69% white; Bellevue: 60% white. Even our Eastside doppelganger, Mercer Island, is substantially more diverse than Bainbridge at 78% white.
The Housing Needs Assessment also found that the island’s median household income for 2010 was $92,558. Over 80% of us live in a single-family home. In 2015, the median sales price for that single-family home was $666,500.
We are expensive, and we don’t have enough affordable housing. It’s a fundamental question of supply and demand. We may not intend it, but the policies that keep our island leafy and our housing density low are arguably resulting in disparate impact on those who might otherwise live here. According to a Connecticut* fair housing report, “Zoning ordinances in suburban communities frequently include provisions that effectively bar the construction of affordable housing. Studies have shown that ‘anti-density zoning,’ which calls for large lot sizes for houses, has limited the supply of housing, increased housing prices and reduced the local supply of multifamily units.”
While trying to preserve the island’s forest-and-farm character, the City has also emphasized the importance of socio-economic diversity through housing affordability, which has been clearly and forcefully stated in the Comprehensive Plan and other planning documents. For at least a decade prior to the recession, the City tried to juggle these inconsistent goals. According to the Bainbridge Review, the City passed a mandatory inclusionary ordinance in 1997, the first of its kind in the state, which required a percentage of affordable housing to be included in all new development. That ordinance was repealed in 2005 due to numerous flaws, including questions about its legality and its failure to maintain affordability, because it allowed the initial buyers of affordable units to sell at market rates.
Eventually, the City adopted the Housing Design Demonstration Projects (HDDP), which gives density bonuses to developers, evaluated on whether the development includes affordable housing and/or green building practices. But private developers have primarily opted for green building, rather than creating any appreciable number of new affordable housing units.
In contrast to private sector developers, HRB used the HDDP to build an entirely affordable development of 24-unit single-family homes (with an additional 16 town homes currently under construction) at Ferncliff Village.
With the Suzuki property on the market, the long-simmering and seemingly intractable problem of affordable housing presents itself again. And yet, strong voices in our community are arguing against any development whatsoever, no matter how ecologically sensitively it is done. Two members of our City Council, who have expressed reservations about developing Suzuki, have instead floated a proposal to convene another City task force to study the problem of affordable housing. It’s not a new idea. A quick search of the City’s website turns up dozens of reports from task forces, committees, and agencies about affordable housing, the HDDP and housing diversity.
Fine. Let’s have another committee, and another study.
But first, let’s focus on what we’ve actually done to affirmatively further fair housing after twenty years of reports, and studies and committees.
The 2015 Housing Needs Assessment found that the island has a total multi-family rental inventory of 642 units. Rental vacancy rates hover around 1%. Over half of the multi-family rentals (359) are market rate, with rents from $850 to $3500 a month. There are 283 rent-assisted units–most with wait lists–which is a 26-unit increase since 2003. In that time, the island has increased by about 3000 people, to population of about 10,500 households. Ferncliff Village provides permanently affordable home ownership of 24 single-family homes, under the Community Land Trust model (through which permanent affordability is maintained because HRB retains ownership of the land). In addition, 16 Community Land Trust town home units are currently being built at Ferncliff.
That means Bainbridge Island has managed to increase our permanently affordable, income-qualified housing stock by about 50 units since 2003 (66 if you want to count the 16 unfinished Ferncliff town homes). The proposals for Suzuki envision 60 permanently affordable homes and rentals, doubling our progress over the last 13 years with a single project.
Of course, a few people find other affordable housing situations on Bainbridge Island, by stroke of luck, or generous friends or relatives. But luck and friends are not a housing strategy. Nor do they affirmatively further fair housing. If we can’t course-correct, people who already live here will continue to be priced off the island. Many middle-income people who work here will continue to have no choice but to commute from off-island. And people of different races, ages and life experience who could culturally and socially enrich this community, while being able to share in our good schools, strong bonds, and island life, will be kept out because our housing cost-burden is too great.
The cold truth is that almost all of us on Bainbridge Island are well-off white people with a large carbon footprint, enjoying life in our single-family houses (myself included). We’re out of step with the increasingly integrated, global world. As Seattle continues to experience explosive growth, and its biggest housing crisis since World War II, all of the surrounding areas will feel the fallout. Growth pressure is coming, even to Bainbridge Island.
We have to be better. It’s our legal obligation, and our ethical and moral obligation. And, it’s reality.
I hope that as the Council deliberates on the question of what to do with Suzuki, it will fully consider our fair housing obligations, as well as the ecological impact of development. Putting 60 units of affordable housing on the city’s property, while developing the site with care and sensitivity to the ecological impact is a way to be better, right now.
*Connecticut is relevant because, like Bainbridge Island, it is highly segregated. It is also subject to the same federal fair housing laws as we are.