The city of Bellingham is currently reviewing a new site for a tiny home village. The location would be a former city of Bellingham “Clean Green” yard waste disposal site between Lakeway Drive and Old Woburn Street, across the street from Bayview Cemetery. The village would be built by HomesNOW!.
According to Doug Gustafson, chairman of HomesNOW!, the city of Bellingham is extremely supportive of the project.
“We proposed that site because it’s city owned land and it’s vacant,” he said. “The new mayor was very supportive of us, so he directed his staff to basically make it happen.”
Since the organization gets its funding from private donations, the new tiny home village won’t use any taxpayer money.
HomesNOW! was recently involved in a controversy regarding their funding. In early November of 2019, former HomesNOW! president Jim Peterson was arrested on suspicion of first-degree theft. It is estimated Peterson embezzled over $75,000.
HomesNOW! will be responsible for the building and management of the site. “If we got more resources, we’d be able to do a lot more,” Gustafson said. “But this is what we’ve been able to do with what we’ve got so far. The reason why I think we’ve made progress with the city is because we’re not asking for anything except to use vacant land.”
A press release from the city’s communications and outreach director said that the site was a former seasonal debris drop-off service. The program was phased out when other waste disposal options arose and the site remained vacant for several years.
“City owned space was required and we owned that location,” Mayor Seth Fleetwood said. “That was one that could deliver water, for example.”
If the location is approved, HomesNOW! will build up to 20 tiny homes on the location which can house up to 28 residents. According to the press release, amenities such as bathrooms, drinking water, an outdoor kitchen and garbage containers will be provided.
Residents will also be provided with human and social services. According to Brian Heinrich, Bellingham’s deputy administrator, social services will include behavioral, substance and mental health services. There will also be access to financial counseling and housing-related services.
HomesNOW! has built similar projects on city land in the past. Winter Haven, which ran from January 2019 to April of the same year, was located behind city hall. It transitioned into Safe Haven, which moved to the Whatcom Dispatch Center that same month. Unity Village was established in August near the Post Point Wastewater Treatment Plant. It will be in service until April of this year. However, if the site is approved, this village will be more of a village than an encampment, unlike previous locations.
“It’s a tiny home community,” Gustafson said. “It’s technically classified as an encampment because there’s codes that prevent us from being able to build structures that aren’t on a foundation. So even though the buildings are up to code, they’re supposed to be treated as temporary under the law. We have to apply for our temporary shelter permit, but it’s all tiny homes. We have no tents.”
Although not technically an encampment, this village will operate similarly to the previous projects. The communities will be mostly self-governing, with HomesNOW! there to provide support and help when needed.
According to Fleetwood, the three past projects have proved that these encampments are a viable option for people experiencing homelessness.
“It’s best to protect the security of the individuals,” Fleetwood said. “It’s well-managed. They have eligibility requirements: no drinking, no drugs, among other things, and we have not had complaints. It has functioned as presented.”
Gustafson made it clear that these tiny home villages are not a solution to Bellingham’s housing crisis.
“I consider it emergency housing,” he said. “It’s just like an emergency lunch in school. If you’re a kid that can’t afford lunch, you still got a lunch. Of course we’re trying to get people into permanent housing, but until they’re able to find it, they can live here as long as they follow the rules.”
The site will have to go through a Type II review by the city of Bellingham in order to be approved. According to the press release, this will involve a neighborhood meeting and review of site plans. Currently the city is waiting on a permit application from HomesNOW!“We will review an application as soon as HomesNOW! submits one,” Heinrich said. “They are currently permitted through April at the Post Point site [Unity Village], so [we] will anticipate the review and public comment period beginning as soon as we receive a permit to review.”