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Housing Needs Assessments— The Best Approach to Population Planning

Like many cities across the United States, Bellingham is facing a housing crisis. A significant gap exists between housing need and housing supply. The shortage of available housing in Bellingham has only grown worse in recent years. In order to respond, it is important to utilize tools that not only look at population and projected population growth, but also consider the people that make up that population—their individual needs, socio-economic status, race, ethnicity, and so much more. This article discusses such a tool—a Housing Needs Assessment—and how it can help make sure that future land use planning decisions meet community housing needs.

Housing Needs Assessments and the Growth Management Act

According to the Municipal Research and Services Center (“MRSC”), the Washington Growth Management Act (“GMA”) is “a series of state statutes, first adopted in 1990, that requires fast-growing cities and counties to develop a comprehensive plan to manage their population growth.”

Whatcom County is one of 18 counties in Washington that must “fully plan” under the GMA, i.e., address all enumerated GMA planning goals set forth at RCW 36.70A.020. As a city located within a county required to “fully plan” under the GMA per RCW 36.70A.040(1), Bellingham must also meet the same GMA planning requirements. One such planning goal is on housing:

(4) Housing. Plan for and accommodate housing affordable to all economic segments of the population of this state, promote a variety of residential densities and housing types, and encourage preservation of existing housing stock.

RCW 36.70A.020. Under the GMA, Bellingham is required to do more than simply plan to accommodate projected population growth. Because Bellingham is also required to plan for housing affordable to all segments of the population and promote a variety of residential densities and housing types, it must complete a Housing Needs Assessment. Such a study is needed to competently plan for and accommodate affordable housing and to promote the variety of densities and housing types needed in the community.

So, What is a Housing Needs Assessment?

A Housing Needs Assessment (“HNA”) is a study that identifies gaps between a community’s current housing supply and identifies the current and future housing needs. An HNA asks questions such as:

● Who lives and works here and what are their socioeconomic characteristics?

● What types of housing are available?

● Are there any groups of people who are not able to find housing that is safe, affordable, and meets their household needs?

● How much housing, and what types of housing, are needed to meet current and future housing needs?

● Is there sufficient buildable land capacity to accommodate this growth and housing diversity?

Those questions feed directly into the four components that ultimately make up an HNA:

· Community Profile

· Workforce Profile

· Housing Inventory

· Gap Analysis

The Community Profile assesses and measures community conditions, such as population, age, race, income, cost-burden, and other factors, related to housing needs. The Workforce Profile assesses the housing needs of individuals living and working in the community. A Housing Inventory summarizes the housing available in the community and compares it to the needs to identify the housing problems. And, finally, Gap Analysis identifies the gaps between the housing a community needs and the housing it has available. Based on the data collected from each component, a HNA helps local jurisdictions quantify their housing needs and determine how best to address those needs.

Critical Next Steps for Bellingham

Bellingham faces both a housing supply and housing variety crisis, far too similar to cities throughout Washington. Many people who need to live close to work, schools, and other resources are unable to find affordable or adequate housing. According to an article in Publicola, there is not enough variety of housing in our area to accommodate demand: “From Bellingham to Walla Walla, and in cities all over Washington state, neighborhoods where working-class families can afford to live are vanishing.”

Land use planning must be focused on more than just accommodating projected population growth and existing buildable land capacity, in an effort to promote as much density as possible. Rather, it must look holistically at community housing needs. As a first step, a complete HNA should provide Bellingham with sufficient information to develop the plans and strategies needed to competently address its housing crisis.



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

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