top of page

Housing Is Critical Infrastructure: The Mindset We Need to Expedite Affordable Housing Development

topography of city with green space and water running through it

We’ll cut to the chase here: housing is infrastructure. To reiterate just how essential housing is, even outside of the context of the current housing crisis, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) sums it up perfectly:

“Infrastructure fundamentally exists to provide connections. Those connections, whether via the built environment or over the internet, almost always include one’s home as either the starting place or the destination.”

Despite how necessary housing is, it is categorized differently than infrastructure at the national and local levels — even though housing is a key part of the infrastructure ecosystem. Low-income, public housing is a long-term asset that benefits communities both socially and economically.

To tackle the housing crisis in Bellingham and Whatcom County, one potential solution is to establish public-private partnerships (also known as P3s). In such partnerships, the public sector provides infrastructure support in exchange for land and/or the development of affordable housing.

Housing and the Definition of Infrastructure

Thanks to the federal government’s historic $580 billion commitments through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) and Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), infrastructure is at the top of everyone’s minds, but with a national shortage of 1.5 million homes, so is the housing crisis.

When people think "infrastructure," things like roads, bridges, and even plumbing come to mind. And there is no doubt that America's infrastructure needs attention. Upgrades to existing infrastructure, and the construction of new infrastructure, not only provide jobs but also critical social services — including more equal broadband access and more accessible public transportation.

While improved infrastructure in the traditional sense is a good thing for our communities, leaders in academia, real estate, and even government are arguing that housing should be considered critical infrastructure, too.

In July of 2021, House Representative Maxine Waters introduced the Housing is Infrastructure Act of 2021 (H.R. 4497) to address the most pressing housing issues for the country’s most vulnerable, marginalized, and low-income renters. Among other things, the act would include a $75 billion investment in public housing, a national infrastructure bank, and $45 billion for new homes through the national Housing Trust Fund. A fact sheet about the act states:

“Public housing is critical to ensuring people with the greatest needs have a safe, decent, affordable, and accessible place to call home, and the preservation of this community asset must be included in any strategy to ensure housing is a human right. Congress has divested from public housing for decades, resulting in over $70 billion in unmet capital backlog needs. As a result, our nation loses 10,000 to 15,000 units of public housing every year to obsolescence or decay, and other units fall into disrepair.”

Today, the Housing is Infrastructure Act remains in the House in the introductory phase of the legislative process because lawmakers have yet to agree on the definition of infrastructure. But, the relationship between infrastructure and housing is so interdependent that we can’t have one without the other.

After all, roads, sewer, water, power, buildings, and broadband (to name just a few) are foundational elements for which social and economic systems operate. More so, this infrastructure is ultimately funded and maintained by taxpayers who live within these service areas and benefit from these public resources. If there are no homes for people to live in, the infrastructure crumbles.

The Cost of Affordable Housing

According to the National Association of Home Builders, building 100 affordable single-family homes can directly and indirectly impact a local economy in one year, resulting in:

  • $27.8 million in local income

  • $3.6 million in taxes and other local revenue

  • 394 new jobs

Additionally, access to affordable housing has the ability to improve productivity and further strengthen the economy by allowing low-income families to save money so they can participate more fully in the local economy and ultimately benefit from economic mobility.

To reduce the widening wealth gap and improve financial stability for our low-income households right here at home, Bellingham needs to build more affordable housing — a lot of it. But we don’t have a plan or the resources to build the amount of affordable housing that is needed.

A recent article in The Bellingham Herald states:

“By 2044, Whatcom County is estimated to need almost 35,000 new housing units to meet demand. About 22,000 of those units, more than 60%, need to be affordable, according to Blake Lyon, Bellingham’s director of planning & community development. In order to be considered affordable, housing costs can’t exceed 30% of a family’s gross income and must serve families making 80% or less of the area median income, according to the city of Bellingham.”

Given the information above, if the City of Bellingham takes 50% of the County’s new growth over the next twenty years, 60% of those new homes must be affordable. This equates to a total of 10,500 affordable homes – approximately 525 affordable new homes per year.

According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Median Family Income (MFI) for a family of four is $102,600. If we crunch the numbers, a family of four making 80% of the MFI earns $76,800 per year. This family cannot afford to purchase a house that costs more than $270,000 in today’s dollars, assuming a 6% mortgage interest rate. To ensure they don't exceed 30% of their monthly income, they should allocate no more than $1,920 per month for mortgage and utilities. However, it is challenging to find a home priced at $270,000 in today’s real estate market.

According to the City’s 2023 – 2027 Consolidated Plan Overview, it costs more than $400,000 to build an affordable apartment unit— which means government programs will need to help subsidize the $100,000 gap to help our family into a home. This example is a best-case scenario for one family of four making 80% MFI. But what about families making 50% or 30% MFI?

Looking at the 2023 proposed Action Plan Summary, we find that the City receives less than $27 million dollars a year from various federal, state, and local grants and agencies. And, only a portion of the $27 million is allocated for new affordable housing. So how are we going to cover the cost of 525 affordable new homes per year for families making between 30% and 80% MFI? Using the best-case scenario we posed above, we would need to find $52.5 million in subsidies to help families into housing.

A Role for Public-Private Partnerships

The demand for affordable housing is substantial but Bellingham’s current Action Plan funding is insufficient. But the shortfall in funds needed to bridge the cost of construction and the lack of subsidies should not fall on the shoulders of taxpayers— many of whom are the very people who need affordable housing in the first place.

To get a grip on our housing crisis, we need to bring professionals from the building industry to the table to weigh-in on strategies that can promote the responsible and sustainable development of more affordable housing for our community.

A standard approach that cities take to help solve affordable housing shortages is to implement infill measures, so there is a mix of housing types beyond single-family homes. Bellingham is currently implementing this approach now. Specifically, the City of Bellingham is working to reduce parking requirements, permit Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), and encourage landowners to build multi-family middle housing. There are also discussions to hasten permitting processes and expand community land trusts.

While mixed-density housing is one part of the equation, eliminating single-family zoning is not a catch-all solution. The American dream to have a home with a yard for two kids and a dog is still alive for many people, and eliminating single-family homes near urban areas will result in an increase in sprawl. Minneapolis got rid of single-family zoning, but early evidence shows it was not enough, according to Bipartisan Policy. The article outlines multiple steps cities can take to address housing affordability, and makes a point of saying, “cities do not need to rely solely on federal and state financing to overcome the expensive upfront costs of development.” The takeaway is clear:

“Cities should not hesitate to do everything in their power to address the urgent need for more affordable housing—as soon as possible. No single policy can serve as a silver bullet to sufficiently improve affordability, and cities will need a comprehensive approach including a slate of policy solutions to have a meaningful impact.”

One idea is to leverage infrastructure funding via the federal government’s new BIL and IRA policies to close the infrastructure gaps and open up more buildable land close to the urban center. With infrastructure costs covered, City staff and developers can structure an agreement to redirect the impact and mitigation fees, typically paid to the City. Instead, those funds could get allocated towards the production of affordable housing. The development of new homes will open supply, generate jobs, and increase tax revenue that will be reinvested back into infrastructure maintenance and improvement efforts.

We’re years into this housing crisis, and there’s no easy exit on the horizon. It’s going to take cooperation and out-of-the-box thinking from many stakeholders in our community to come to comprehensive solutions that help get our Bellingham neighbors into affordable housing.

ABOUT — Housing for Bellingham is a community resource that works to explain the fundamental processes and terminology associated with housing related decisions in effort to inform the public. When the people understand land use planning processes and terminology, everyone can make more informed decisions about housing and land use policies in their communities



Contact your Bellingham City Council representative and tell them you support a proactive plan for sustainable growth.

bottom of page