Affordable housing: Still an issue in Bellingham but could be improving, with six urban villages in development, the city has new residential possibilities

Illustration by Hunter Smith

By Cooper Campbell

It’s not just you; affordable housing in Bellingham is hard to find. While the city takes a variety of approaches, new development on Samish Way is just one place students may find housing.

In Whatcom County, the overall rental apartment vacancy rate is .24% and the single bedroom vacancy rate is .04%, according to a report from the University of Washington’s Runstad Department of Real Estate.

Even if renters or buyers are able to find a property, the average home price has increased 26% over the last five years, according to the City of Bellingham’s Housing Market Assessment. During the same time, median family income increased by only 3%.

“We need a wide variety of housing options, including ownership opportunities, not just apartment rentals … to really diversify and equalize our housing market,” said Mason Luvera, communications director for Downtown Bellingham Partnership.

In an attempt to keep up with housing demand, the City of Bellingham has been creating “urban villages” in a number of locations. Urban village is a term the city uses to describe areas in which development plans will create new residential and commercial offerings as part of smart and sustainable growth, according to the city website.

Six locations are listed on the urban village page of the city website: Downtown, Fairhaven, Samish Way, Waterfront District, Fountain District and Old Town.

“These villages give our community the opportunity to develop a vibrant mix of residential and commercial uses,” the website states.

Darby Cowles, senior planner for the City of Bellingham, said the Samish Way plan increased opportunities for housing. Previously, residential uses were prohibited in that area, Cowles said.

The city is moving forward with these plans and “encouraging implementation,” Cowles said. However, not everyone is in favor of the urban village plans.

During public comment at a City Council meeting, an increase in allowable building height on Samish Way drew ire from some residents. Eva Chazo, a resident of the Sehome neighborhood, spoke at the May 6 meeting.

“You will be impacting the people in that neighborhood and they will not see the sun again,” Chazo said.

Increased traffic is another concern frequently mentioned at city council meetings.

Luvera stands in favor of taller buildings where appropriate.

“Bellingham is growing and our most recent census data is showing that. We can’t continue to grow out and suburbanization is not a healthy solution for any city. But we can grow up,” Luvera said.

In addition to low-income housing, Luvera said Bellingham needs more housing across the income spectrum.

“We need workforce housing, and that means apartments that are affordable to people who might be full-time baristas or working as recent graduates out of college,” Luvera said.

The City of Bellingham echoed Luvera in its 2018 Housing Market Assessment.

“Put simply, there are not enough housing units available for all income levels of the population,” the report states.

Whatcom County as a whole is grappling with housing issues. The county falls “well below” the state average for homes affordable to those earning a median income, according to a city housing report.

Without affordable housing, residents become cost-burdened, meaning high levels of their income is spent on their rent or mortgage.

“Forty-three percent of households overall are paying too much of their income for housing,” the report states.

The problem affects thousands of households in Whatcom County.

The city report says there are 6,810 very low-income households paying over 50% of their income for housing. There are also over several thousand households on the Housing Authority waitlist, according to the report.

While state and local governments act to tackle the housing crisis, finding an affordable apartment may continue to be difficult. Nonetheless, solutions are in place as the city of Bellingham encourages urban villages and other development.

This article was updated on June 9 to correct the overall vacancy rate in Whatcom County from .04% to .24%. 

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