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Report: Bellingham’s tree canopy plan may hinder affordable housing efforts

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(The Center Square) – A new report from the Washington Policy Center finds that recent actions by Bellingham to improve the city’s tree canopy coverage may hinder progress to increase affordable housing in the future.

The report from Washington Policy Center Research Fellow Scott Fallon cites legislation approved by the Bellingham City Council that requires 45% tree canopy coverage in the city, giving Bellingham the highest tree-coverage requirement in the state. However, the new requirement impacts construction of affordable housing.

“On literally the day after Bellingham’s largest homeless shelter announced policy changes due to a record increase in homelessness, Whatcom Million Trees – a tree-planting organization – celebrated the collapse of a sustainable infill housing project to build 68 townhouses,” Fallon said in the report.

The developer canceled the project because of rising interest rates and the high cost of building in Bellingham, according to Fallon.

The Washington Policy Center previously reported on Bellingham having a short housing supply. Whatcom Million Trees presented a multiple bullet list of demands for changes to the approved tree canopy plan. The list included building 12% fewer housing units than proposed.

The approved plan with the city leaves 73 trees untouched and plants 474 replacement trees. As of September, Bellingham has 40% tree canopy coverage. This is higher than Seattle (28%), Bellevue (39%) and Renton (29%).

Bellingham boasts the economic benefits of a high tree canopy coverage, estimating that trees generate $48.7 million in ecological benefits.

However, Fallon believes tree canopy advocates like Whatcom Million Trees are taking a short term view and does not factor in the mitigation plantings. Fallon also noted Bellingham’s recent actions intended to help renters as a hindrance to making housing more affordable in the city.

For instance, earlier this year the Bellingham City Council approved increases to rental property registration and late fees in order to cover the additional expenses associated with the program’s inclusion of two additional staff positions.

“There will be no incremental measurable benefit to the environment or climate through losing this sustainable townhome project,” Fallon said. “When combined with other anti-housing measures such as the new rent control measure in Bellingham, this housing opposition makes the city less affordable for the poor while adding to the ranks of the homeless.”

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