Affordable housing: If not now, how, where, when?

Affordable housing has been the subject of increasing conversation on Bainbridge the last several years, but progress has been negligible despite legislative impetus statewide and locally. Nonetheless, Bethany Lutheran Church remains committed to developing affordable housing on its property. Its efforts deserve serious consideration. The time for action is now!

More than six years ago, Bethany appointed a Property Utilization Task Force to consider a longtime discussed possibility of developing a portion of its 8+ acres between Finch and Sportsman Club roads for affordable housing. The task force concluded that it is “not just advisable but urgent to proceed with a plan to develop Bethany’s property for affordable housing,” and that conclusion was endorsed at a congregational meeting in October 2017.

Bethany’s affordable housing vision has been informed by a number of governmental actions. Washington’s Growth Management Act, adopted in 1990, called for development of comprehensive plans containing a “housing element,” to include “units for moderate-, low-, very low- and extremely low-income households.” In response to the GMA, the city of Bainbridge Island developed and adopted a Comprehensive Plan in 2016.

It included this statement: Market forces alone will not address the urgent housing needs facing BI. In the face of daunting circumstances, the city aspires to an ambitious vision of its future and commits to an innovative, aggressive and multi-faceted housing strategy.

The vision contained a call to partner with nonprofits to develop and implement affordable housing strategies. Furthermore, it called on COBI to support the efforts of nonprofits “in developing and managing affordable housing.”

Responding to the Comp Plan, COBI appointed an Affordable Housing Task Force in 2017. Its final report, released in 2018, included recommendations that support Bethany’s vision: a commitment for “permanent support for affordable housing,” and a call to adopt an “Innovations Program” to encourage making “the necessary changes in code and policy to allow city staff the flexibility to permit building projects on a limited basis that do not otherwise fit into zoning and land-use code, if 100 percent of the housing units are affordable…”

The next legislative milestone came from the state. In 2019, the legislature adopted a law that mandates that municipalities grant an “increased density bonus” for affordable housing on property owned by a religious organization.

With impetus from COBI and the state legislature, Bethany’s task force moved forward to translate its vision for affordable housing into a reality. They began to consult with local architect Jonathan Davis and updated an earlier septic system analysis. The analysis concluded that the property could support two septic systems that would support up to 28 homes.

In May 2021, Bethany submitted a formal request for an “increased density bonus.” In doing so, Bethany advocated that its R0.4 zoning was inconsistent with adjacent property zoning, and that a site-specific capacity analysis warranted greater density as authorized by the state statute. The executive directors of Housing Resources Bainbridge and Helpline House, as well as many members of the BI community, endorsed Bethany’s request.

Sadly, Bethany’s request has become mired in delay and debate. Confronted with legislative imperatives, the City Council and Planning Commission have spent months arguing about and editing draft ordinances. Their quest for the perfect ordinance impairs addressing the urgent need to do something. Unfortunately, inaction also seems to inspire spurious arguments that Bethany is greedy and trying to shred the Comp Plan. Really?

Bethany remains poised to comply with city requirements and to translate its vision into 20 or more units of affordable housing on its property (which imperatives include septic, traffic, stormwater and other studies as well as community meetings once the scope of the project is determined). Why is this taking so long? Why is there no mention at meetings, in newspaper articles, and in many letters to COBI of the calls for action on affordable housing in relevant legislation? And, why have no Innovations Programs been adopted in the three years since the COBI Task Force’s final report?

This delay continues as housing prices skyrocket. A recent check of Zillow shows that the median price of a single-family residence now is approximately $1.4 million; and a review of available homes shows almost none offered for under $600,000.

While Bethany’s vision will not solve the housing crisis on BI, it represents an opportunity to do something, a step that might inspire other organizations to envision affordable housing on their properties.

In the insightful and inspiring words of Bethany’s Pastor Paul Stumme-Diers: “If not Bethany, who? If not at Bethany, where? If not now, when?”

David Swartling is a longtime BI resident, a member of the Bethany church and a convener of its Affordable Housing Task Force.