John Lesow Guest Writer

“Planners on Both Sides of the Border are on the Same Page…And it’s the Wrong Page.”

At their April 24 meeting at the Bellingham Yacht Club, the Bellingham City Club hosted a pro-development panel discussing the pressing issue of “Balancing Policy, Population and Preservation”.

At issue were the recent legislative edicts from Olympia, demanding more housing density in Bellingham and prohibiting Single Family Zoning.

The Washington State legislation, memorialized in E2SHB 1110, requires Bellingham to allow and encourage densification of former Single-Family neighborhoods.  This means a significantly larger number of people can be shoehorned and stacked into the space traditionally occupied by single family, ground level homes with yards, trees, gardens and adequate parking.  Places for kids to play unsupervised.

Across the border, the Province of British Columbia has been busy implementing similar legislation, abolishing Single Family Zoning with Bills 44, 46 and 47 as part of their “Homes for People Action Plan”.

Like Washington, this legislation will significantly alter the character of existing single-family neighborhoods.  As well as diminishing local control with respect to lot utilization, parking requirements, height restrictions, view easements and a host of other unforeseen “consequences of crowding”.

Many British Columbians, including my neighbors in the District of North Vancouver, are not too keen on this.   A growing number question why the Provincial government in Victoria should dictate where these higher density units will be built, without consultation or consensus from the citizenry. They question this “top down” planning approach.

Washingtonians should also question why bureaucrats in Olympia can suddenly eliminate a complete Single-Family zoning classification, in place for decades, with no assurance that such a plan will do anything to address the “housing crisis”.

The three panel members spent the hour pitching the familiar proposition that “affordability” can be addressed by building more and smaller housing units.  Without citing one real world example where this has actually worked.

Apartments, townhouses and condominiums in former single-family neighborhoods will not provide a solution to the housing “crisis”. At best, they provide short term construction jobs.  Hence the wholesale buy-in from the building industry.

However, in the long run, the costs of servicing increased density development, (police, fire, roads, infrastructure) always ends up costing taxpayers more.

Too bad Bellingham Mayor Kim Lund, who attended the luncheon, was not on the panel to provide some balance.

Panelists noted that the median price of a home sold in Bellingham in March 2024 was $627,025.  And that as a result, home ownership was unaffordable for 84% of Washington families.   This is a powerful (though untrue) political argument that has obviously resonated with policy makers in Olympia, fueled by industry groups eager to densify existing, serviced neighborhoods at minimum cost.

However, these stats are for NEW homes. The numbers are from a 2022 survey based on a minimum household income of $130,409 when the actual Washington median household income was $73,775.

The conclusion was that 76% of households could not afford new homes.

But do we assume that these prospective, shut out buyers have no equity in a previous home to put down on a new one?  Or an infusion of funds from another source?  A household with a single breadwinner making $73,775 and no extra money may not be able to afford a $627,000 new home. But this example is hardly the rule.  It is the exception.

North Vancouver is similar to Bellingham in demographics, terrain and single-family home construction.

The median price for a single-family home in March 2024 was $1,769,733. CDN.  At present exchange rates, the price would be $1,294,184. USD.  You can expect to pay twice as much for a home in North Vancouver vs. Bellingham.  However, the majority of the homeowners here are not rich.  Many just bought at the right time.  Before speculation and inflation sent prices through the roof.

The questions remain:

Will packing more people into smaller spaces provide the same healthy community environment for raising children?  One previously afforded to them by ground level living in low density, single family neighborhoods?

Neighborhoods more like the ones enjoyed by the majority of the seniors in the Bellingham and North Vancouver audiences?  Why should the grandkids have to settle for less?

Can you raise a child successfully in an apartment with a balcony?

Is Bellingham a better place to live and raise children now than in the 90’s when the population was lower and the densities less?  Safer? Less crime?

The Bellingham I knew 20 plus years ago was a lot more desirable place to live than it is today. The same goes for Vancouver, B.C.  And it’s a lot more expensive.


In the next election, vote for State and Provincial candidates that will return zoning decisions to cities and municipalities.  Not bureaucrats in Olympia and Victoria.

  • Repeal the ban on Single Family Zoning.
  • Concentrate on rehabilitation and renovation of existing housing, not demolition and densification.
  • For “affordability”, start by issuing vouchers for prospective renters, particularly those with families.
  • Will this help?  Maybe.  But it’s worth a try.

John Lesow served on the Whatcom County Planning Commission from 2005-2013.  He lives in North Vancouver and is a Board Member of the Edgemont Community Association.