top of page

Population Projections (and Housing) Should Be a Bipartisan Issue

person controlling housing opportunities
Population projections and housing policy should be bipartisan

MRSC states: “Selecting a population projection should represent a data-driven decision that is the cornerstone of long-range planning efforts. One of the major pitfalls to avoid is adopting a population projection based on a desired outcome, rather than a projection grounded in reliable data and historical trends.”

Relying on data, versus a political agenda, helps protect communities from negative social and economic issues that stem from housing shortages, lack of employment, and more. However, a comprehensive growth plan is adopted by city and county councils who are elected because of the political vision of their constituents.

Unfortunately, politics often play an instrumental role in how population projection data is interpreted and used to guide the future growth of an area. Therefore, housing and planning decisions can be influenced by political coalitions instead of data and historical trends.

The Balancing Act of Data and Politics

In 2022, we have the opportunity to look back at the 20-year population projections which were developed in 2002 and adopted in 2003.

In 2003, the Bellingham City Council adopted a resolution in which Bellingham would house 54% of Whatcom County’s projected population growth by 2022 (see table 1).

Table 1: Population growth forecast adopted by Bellingham City Council in Resolution 2003-39, December 2003.

As of April 2022, the State Office of Financial Management (OFM) data shows that Bellingham is home to 104,016 residents, which is 9,000 less than the City had originally planned. Whatcom County, on the other hand, is accurate within a shockingly close 278 residents and 2022 is not over. The gap here in our current population shows the City of Bellingham accepted 38.7% of the countywide growth from 2002 to 2022.

What Happens When Political Views Overrule the Data?

In 2009, a UGA review was completed by Whatcom County setting the horizon year for 2031. This is a different cycle than our 2022 population growth projection addressed above, which creates a significant variation in projection worth noting.

Low-growth advocates encouraged county planners to take a low-risk approach to growth. They cautioned Whatcom County to reduce the 2002 20-year estimated population projections in an effort to protect the environment and the current quality of life. Advocates proposed that Whatcom County should reduce its population projection to 220,000 people for the year 2031.

The City then reduced its goal of accommodating 54% of county growth (per Resolution 2003-39) down to 40% of new growth. As a result, the city was not obligated to plan for as much housing and associated infrastructure. Yet, during the past 20 years, the population of Whatcom County has grown in lock step with the 2003 projection.

In that time frame, new residents had little or no opportunity to purchase in Bellingham because of the cost of housing, forcing them to buy in rural Whatcom County and its smaller cities. The lack of affordable housing available in Bellingham made bedroom communities of Ferndale, Lynden, Everson, Nooksack, and Blaine as people primarily work and recreate in Bellingham, the economic and cultural seat of Whatcom County.

The unintended consequences of adopting a low-growth estimate instead of a medium to high growth estimate per Washington State’s OFM data have resulted in rural sprawl, lack of infrastructure, shortage of housing, and the overinflated housing prices that Bellingham and Whatcom County residents are struggling with today.

It's important to note that political ideology does not slow population growth. Instead, it creates several issues. When the demand for housing outpaces supply, prices rise making it hard for employers to attract outside talent to an area, stifling economic development. This discourages new businesses from relocating to Bellingham, thus reducing the opportunity for high-paying jobs.

Rural sprawl erodes a city’s tax base. It also increases energy demands and carbon footprints, impacting roads and transportation infrastructure, which is costly and detrimental to the environment. More traffic creates air and water pollution caused by carbon emissions and run-off from vehicles.

Further, when cities don’t plan to accommodate a medium to high estimate of projected population growth, yet growth occurs anyway, people build in unplanned areas and can be subjected to higher risks of environmental disasters such as wildfires and/or flooding. Sprawl also puts pressure on Whatcom County’s smaller cities, stressing their infrastructure, parks, schools, and emergency services.

As we’re witnessing, more demand for housing than supply also correlates to an increase in homelessness. According to Greg Colburn, a professor at the University of Washington, homelessness is a housing problem. His research points to the fact that when rental vacancy rates are low, homeless numbers increase.

When community leaders take a low-growth approach, they unintentionally create economic and social contention that strains emergency services, public resources, and existing infrastructure. Reactive policy measures are then enacted to manage the immediate economic and social issues, but these patchwork solutions do not thoroughly address the root problem.

Faced with a current housing crisis and a surge of interest in Whatcom County, it’s essential for the City and County councils to begin a concerted investment in infrastructure development and home building. Because of material shortages and slow permitting processes, it’s critical to act now before things get worse.


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. Learn more at



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

bottom of page