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Saturday, May 8, 2021

Bellingham housing issues discussed in depth during Whatcom Housing Week

Event organizer Rose Lathrop stands with a sign at Whatcom Housing Week. // Photo by Schuyler Shelloner

By Schuyler Shelloner 

As rents, home values and homelessness continue to rise, the Bellingham community gathered together last week to share struggles and discuss possible solutions to the current housing crisis.

Whatcom Housing Alliance’s second annual Whatcom Housing Week featured 14 events, twice as many as 2017. Over 600 attendees listened to 35 experts talk about issues like renters’ rights, cooperative housing solutions and the housing gap itself.  

Rose Lathrop, program director at nonprofit Sustainable Connections, is the Housing Week organizer. She said the goal of Housing Week is to bring people in the community together around shared values: care for each other, the environment and the local economy.

“I truly believe that this community cares about its people,” Lathrop said. “We want to see an equitable, just community. We also really care about our wild places, our parks and our trails, our natural environment. And we also want to have a strong local economy.”

Lathrop said the events of the week were important for bringing people together, not only to provide factual information, but to hear feedback from experts in the field as well and from those who are currently experiencing housing struggles.

According to Dean Fearing, executive director of Kulshan Community Land Trust, Bellingham’s population has grown by 24 percent since 2006, but the housing stock has only increased by 17 percent. Starter homes aren’t available for those earning the area’s median income, which is $54,000. Major local employers like Western, St. Joseph’s Hospital and Whatcom County struggle to find qualified employees because many don’t want to move to a town with no homes they can buy.

Those individuals and families who would like to buy a home are instead forced to rent, which results in a crowded rental market, Fearing said. Lower-income renters then have to compete with an influx of higher-income renters, and rents increase. Those lower-income renters must then choose between cutting back on other necessities, or risk losing their housing.  

There are no legal limits on rent increases in Washington State. At the “Know Your Rights” event on Sunday, Oct. 21, Bellingham Tenants Union Co-Chair Tara Villalba shared her recent experience with a drastic, but legal, rent increase.

After Villalba’s landlord hired a local property management agency to manage Villalba’s rental, the agency issued a 60-day eviction notice. A representative from the agency told Villalba they’d already rented out her house for $1,100 more per month than Villalba had been paying, without giving her the option to pay the higher rent amount.

Villalba, a single mother, had been living in a house in the Lettered Streets neighborhood with her three children and two roommates since 2012. She’s Filipina, and her household is mixed Filipino and Mexican.

“She [Villalba’s landlord] had been hinting that she didn’t like the way that we were in the house,” Villalba said. “She kept saying that we ‘Made her house look bad’ in the neighborhood. We were one of two houses that were loudly and openly people of color in that neighborhood, and she kept saying things like ‘We make the neighborhood look bad,’ that we were making a bad reflection of her on our neighbors, that her property looked trashier than any other property around us within blocks.”

Villalba intends to file a discrimination complaint after she’s settled her housing situation. Discrimination can be difficult to prove, as Tenants’ Union Organizer Conner Darlington acknowledges.

“There’s plenty of room for people in power to hide behind ambiguities and say that something else was at play or was the reasoning when it seems pretty clear that there was another discrimination,” he said.

Darlington said there are ways for those who’ve experienced housing discrimination to seek justice, even if their specific instance of discrimination is difficult to prove. He said the Washington State attorney general has a special task force that actively investigates discrimination claims.

Although Darlington believes it’s important that people who’ve faced discrimination have an avenue to pursue justice, he said they shouldn’t feel pressured to seek justice at the expense of their housing situation.

“I think that it’s somebody’s right to not fight if they want to take the path of least resistance,” Darlington said. “I can imagine being in a situation where you’re being discriminated against, and you just need housing, or you just need a job, then you’re probably not worried about the movement against discrimination so much as you’re worried about your own well-being. I think that can be overlooked, and I think we should respect that.”

At the event, Learning from The Vienna Model Exhibition, rental options utilized in other parts of the world that don’t involve landlord-tenant relations were discussed. Cities like Vienna and Zurich encourage housing co-ops, where groups of renters pitch in funds to construct collectively-owned apartment dwellings. In housing co-ops, prospective tenants buy housing shares, which range in price. Tenants who purchase more shares get larger apartments.

Housing cooperatives tend to be low-profit or nonprofit so all or most of the rent dues go to costs, such as construction loan repayment or building maintenance. That means rental rates decrease over time in housing cooperatives, even while rents in standard market-rate housing rise.

Alan McConchie, Bellingham native and founder of co-working studio Localgroup, said he’d like to start a housing cooperative on top of the Localgroup building downtown. McConchie would like to see proactive housing solutions implemented before Bellingham becomes much more exclusive.

“There are small towns that are like Bellingham but are even more unaffordable,” McConchie said. “Places like Santa Cruz or Boulder that are attractive, cute destination towns with colleges that are near big cities have become part of this global network of unaffordable awesome places that you only go to for tourism. We’re not there yet, but I could easily see us being on that trajectory, where Bellingham becomes a vacation town.”

Bellingham doesn’t have laws that support housing cooperatives, but McConchie believes he could get it started if he could gather enough interested parties.

Bellingham does have local organizations dedicated to constructing permanently affordable housing. Habitat for Humanity and Kulshan Community Land Trust, with financial backing from the Whatcom Community Foundation, are working together on the Telegraph Townhomes project. The project will add 52 affordable homes in northern Bellingham.  

Bellingham City Council member April Barker gave representatives from Habitat for Humanity, Kulshan Community Land Trust and the Whatcom Community Foundation awards for innovation at the Housing Week Reception, which concluded Housing Week.

“Quite honestly, the current infrastructure that we have, the current housing that we have does not reflect our values,” Barker said. “We will have to change it, and it will be the engineers, and the builders and the architects and all of those people who are going to help us change it.”

Other award-winning organizations and developers included Mercy Housing, RMC Architects and Dawson Construction for their contributions to Eleanor Apartments. The Eleanor Apartments were constructed downtown to provide housing for low-income seniors.

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