Panel discusses Bellingham housing crisis

By Josh Hughes

Students and the greater Bellingham community are facing skyrocketing rent, the city has a .5 percent vacancy rate, and there are over 800 homeless people seeking shelter.

On May 23, Western’s Representation and Engagement Programs put on a panel focused on the housing crisis in Bellingham. The panel featured six individuals related to organizations and fields involving issues with housing. The goal was to create an ongoing dialogue about how to solve some of these problems within the community.

The panel was first asked what three values they found most important in dealing with affordable housing.

Mark Sherman, a leader of the York Neighborhood Association and former English professor at Western, explained his goals of preserving existing neighborhoods. He also expressed a desire to be able to assist long term Bellingham residents who have a proven financial need to secure housing.

“No one should ever be homeless in the United States of America, period,” Sherman said.

Tony Casale from the Bellingham Housing Authority spoke next. In his job, Casale administers public housing, provides rental assistance and develops low-income housing. He said that his values were focused on making sure that the decisions and investments that he and his organization make towards housing are respected and held up by future generations.

Jim Peterson, who builds tiny homes for low income individuals and people experience homelessness through HomesNow! Bellingham, talked about his hope that more affordable, non-profit housing would take the place of realty companies trying to reap the benefits of desperate college students.

“I remember when housing cost was 30 percent of your income. My wife and I collectively pay about 75 percent of our income out in Sudden Valley,” Peterson said. “My hope is that this will drastically change in the future.”

The next speaker was Sharon Shewmake, an economics professor at Western who focuses on urban economics. She explained that it’s necessary to invest in people, natural environment and community when it comes to housing.

Greg Winter from the Bellingham Opportunity Council was the next panelist to speak. He serves as the director of homeless housing center, focusing on permanent housing solutions for the homeless. In addition to some of the points already addressed by other speakers, he emphasized the importance of equity when it comes to housing.

“We see very stark segregation by race and ethnicity that’s a result of decades and decades of housing policy, and we have to address that,” fWinter said.

Lastly was Laura Loe, a Seattle housing advocate and activist. She brought up the importance of the shared right to a city, somewhat along the lines of Winter’s comments.

The next large question given to the panel was about the big challenges facing Bellingham housing. The panel took turns explaining what they all thought were the most prevalent and expansive issues with Bellingham specifically.

Many of the speakers brought up the elephant in the room: there’s a shortage of supply and this has made demand rise, which in turn brings prices up to a concerning degree. Casale mentioned the difficulties behind keeping new housing costs low because of the cost that goes into the production of homes.

Winter, on the other hand, pointed out the lack of national housing policy. He expressed a desire to find a solution that includes as many stakeholders as possible invested in the same shared vision.

Shewmake talked about the importance of change in times like these. She claimed that many of her neighbors have felt uncomfortable about a homeless shelter opening close to them, but that these types of alterations in neighborhoods are what truly bring about positive change.

“It’s important to note that these are native lands, not single-family-household communities,” Shewmake said.

Shewmake’s comment neatly segued into another question for the floor concerning possible solutions for these housing issues. A central point that was brought up was the possibility of backyard cottages, or detached accessory dwelling units (DADUs).

These cottages essentially would allow homeowners to build and rent out small dwelling units either in the back or front of their main property. However, currently there is no single family zoning in Bellingham that legally allows for these properties. Deregulations in zoning would be necessary for these types of properties to develop in the future, something that the panel had divided opinions on.

“It’s a way that people can do development themselves,” said Loe, who has worked on DADUs in Seattle before.

Sherman, leader of the York Neighborhood Association, presented opposition.“You’re going to create gentrification. People who are wealthy will start moving in and getting their McMansion on,” Sherman said. “You’ve got the harvesters waiting for deregulation where anything can happen for profit. People who have multiple holdings and lots of profit are going to move in because there’ll be nothing stopping them anymore.”

The majority of the panel, however, seemed to agree that maintaining the tight density of Bellingham was a necessary step to avoid suburban sprawl and the “harvesters”, or realty companies, that come with it.

“I agree with Shewmake’s point that DADUs would largely help out the community and the situation in Bellingham. Mark’s [Sherman] ideas would only result in maintaining the upper-class, single-family status of much of the city, and this prevents any big solution to the overall crisis,” said junior Brittni Weimerskirch after the talk.

The panel all agreed that Bellingham needed to look in different directions than previous cities that have had similar issues with rapid development and threats of gentrification. The “non-solutions” of Portland, Seattle and Vancouver were all addressed.

Additionally, panelists mentioned the significance that Bellingham is a college town, meaning that its housing issues are unique in comparison to larger cities.

“How can we mandate that the University has enough housing for their students, and if not, what does that mean for the person who has to cut grass, where do they live?” asked Loe, bringing in Western’s own responsibility to take care of their students and those that maintain a living because of the opportunities of the school.

After over an hour of discussion, the panel did not have any clear paths to follow, even though many diverse points were brought up. The emphasis placed on the audience at the end was that everyone needs to get involved in the situation, and this starts with attending city hall meetings and getting educated on zoning laws and housing regulations in the city.

“Us as six panelists cannot come up with the answer alone; everyone that has a vested interest in this conversation needs to help,” Casale concluded.


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