October 2023 THRIVE | Housing For All
Today we’re looking at housing in Whatcom County, and how to crack the serious lack of places to live affordably for anyone who makes less than $150,000 a year. Both locally and statewide, there are many smart and compassionate people across the public, private and nonprofit sectors focused on improving housing infrastructure. They are working on affordability and supply strategies that range from changing policies around zoning and housing types (including mobile & manufactured homes) to new or increased funding sources and building incentives.
The challenge is daunting. Yet even as progress feels elusive, I am heartened. Legislators on both sides of the aisle supported bold measures to address the housing crisis in 2023. Closer to home, in addition to hundreds of new housing units under construction or in the permitting pipeline, the Whatcom Transportation Authority recently proposed an innovative idea to boost ridership and increase workforce housing by putting their (publicly owned) real estate to both residential and transit uses. This is a solvable problem. Solutions are a matter of creativity, cooperation and commitment — exactly the kind your Community Foundation is cut out for.
President & CEO
Housing availability and affordability for people at all income levels.
You’ve heard the statistics, but they bear repeating: The median home price in Whatcom County is $575,000. According to housing affordability models, this would require a household income of at least $137,000 to purchase a home. The average household income in our community is about $60,000. For rental housing, a person would need to earn nearly $30/hour ($28.99) for a 2-bedroom place at market rates. Currently, 38% of households that rent in Whatcom County spend more than the recommended maximum of 30% of their income on housing; in Bellingham that figure rises to 58%.
Chances are you understand this reality firsthand, whether as a stunned homeowner or prospective buyer watching prices (and interest rates) climb or a nervous renter — or the parent/friend of one — wondering how much their rent will rise, how far they’ll have to move from their job or how many people they’ll need to live with to make ends meet. Maybe you are or know a business owner wondering how to hire/keep employees who can’t afford to live here, or what to do when a person uses your threshold as a place to shelter or sleep — or a concerned community member faced with people camping out on the streets because they have nowhere else to go.
The housing crisis is real, not just in Whatcom County but in every county. According to research by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, there is not one county in the United States where a person working full time at the Federal minimum wage can find a place to live for 30% of their income or less. The shortage of affordable places to live costs the American economy about $2 trillion a year in lower wages and productivity. Affordable housing is critical to economic security and mobility.
This is a social problem with major economic implications. Or perhaps it’s an economic problem with major social implications.
Either way, it is unsustainable: community health and vitality depend on available and affordable places to live for everyone. Like good roads, clean water, and fast internet, stable, safe, affordable-for-all housing is infrastructure. Without it, people and communities suffer.
Many solutions lie in the realm of preserving and increasing supply, although addressing factors like the ballooning wealth gap and high childcare costs is also important. In the last three years, our county has endured a global pandemic, a historic flood, a wildfire that has consumed more than 4,000 acres at this writing, and two summers of exceptionally smoky skies from nearby wildfires. Each of these events has unique challenges; all require that we stress test our public and private sector systems, including communication and coordination capabilities.
WHAT WE’RE DOING
Supporting housing nonprofit capacity. We recently teamed with the City of Bellingham to assess priorities of nine local organizations on the front lines of housing, with the goal of building their ability to meet escalating needs. (Find a link to the report below). As part of the effort, the Community Foundation awarded grants to each nonprofit to complement the city’s allocated funding.
Building the Threshold Fund. Established in 2018, this revolving loan-guarantee fund reduces the cost of borrowing for construction loans for affordable home-ownership housing providers and creates a reusable pool of funding so that more permanently affordable homes can be built in the future.
Spearheading the Millworks on the Bellingham waterfront, which will bring 83 units of rental housing for people earning 30-60% of the area median income in 2024 (Phase 1), and in Phase 2, an additional 80+ housing units.
Making grants to housing-focused organizations, including raising $2.5 million for Millworks Phase 1 developer, Mercy Housing.
Exploring the creation of local housing finance opportunities, including a no-risk community financing tool for people interested in putting their money to work for both personal and community return by creating more housing for people across a range of income levels.
Advocating with elected officials and other community partners and leaders about the interconnections between housing and community economic, health and environmental planning efforts.
Capacity-building for small and mid-sized housing and shelter providers: Needs, priorities, and recommendations (September 2023)
Whatcom County update (March 2023)
1,600-1,700 units per year countywide needed over next 20 years. (Mercy Housing update)
Whatcom Housing Alliance (Pro Tip: The site includes helpful videos and explainer graphics.)
United Way’s ALICE Report
Washington State Housing Affordability Data
Learn about several new state laws aimed at increasing housing supply
National Low Income Housing Coalition
View the THRIVE Newsletter as e-mailed on 10/11/2023 HERE>