BELLINGHAM - A tax levy to help provide low-income housing here won handily in the Tuesday, Nov. 6, election, buoyed by support in the city's core neighborhoods, from Columbia to Fairhaven.
Outlying neighborhoods, many of them above the city's median for home price, were against the measure. It passed with 55 percent of the overall vote, as of the Thursday, Nov. 8, ballot count.
The levy will collect property taxes in the city to raise nearly $21 million over seven years to help low-income people get into affordable housing. The owner of a $250,000 home will pay $90 more a year for what's known as the Bellingham Home Fund.
The fund seemed to attract a coalition of voters from dense, urban neighborhoods and traditionally liberal neighborhoods, such as Sehome and South Hill.
City Council member Cathy Lehman, who lives downtown, said people in that neighborhood - called the Central Business District - see the effects of homelessness every day. After Sehome, the downtown neighborhood had the strongest support for the Home Fund, at 73 percent.
Downtown residents encounter a large number of homeless people who are there for transit and other services, Lehman said.
"When I walk to work or to City Hall, I'm really faced with the reality of having constituencies of people who don't have adequate housing," she said.
Campaign co-chairman Greg Winter, who is director of the Whatcom Homeless Service Center, said the people who live on the verge of homelessness downtown should be taken into account when considering the large proportion of favorable votes there.
"A lot of the people who live downtown are naturally supporters of this because they are likely to know firsthand what it's like to have scarce housing resources," Winter said.
One explanation for why the levy fared better in urban areas and not so well in the outer neighborhoods was the campaign's doorbelling strategy, Winter said.
"We concentrated that kind of intensive outreach in neighborhoods that tend to be more walkable," he said. "You end up in those denser neighborhoods that are close to the city core."
The message that resonated as campaign volunteers went door to door, Winter said, was that a vote for the Home Fund was an opportunity to help people who are less fortunate.
"I talked to hundreds of people at their doors, and that's what people wanted to do," he said.
Lehman agreed that Bellingham residents are not tax-averse when it comes to helping their neighbors.
"We have a real history of supporting each other and ponying up when what we're asking for is support for people in society to participate and fully enjoy this place," she said.
Most of the levy dollars will build or preserve more than 400 homes for formerly homeless people, disabled people, seniors and minimum-wage earners. Some will go toward rental assistance for veterans and the chronically homeless. The rest will help working families purchase homes, and be used to buy property for low-income housing projects.
City residents most physically distant from the homeless problem weren't swayed by this plan. These same neighborhoods also have some of the highest home prices in Bellingham.
A comparison of voting patterns and median home prices in 17 neighborhoods showed that seven of the nine most expensive neighborhoods in the analysis opposed the levy. This includes Edgemoor, with a $550,000 median home price and a 46 percent vote for the levy; Barkley ($360,000, 41 percent); and Silver Beach ($350,000, 42 percent).
The notable exception was traditionally liberal South Hill, the second most expensive neighborhood at $500,000, which voted 59 percent for the levy. The most supportive neighborhood, Sehome, wasn't included in the price data, provided by Gragg Miller, principal managing broker at Coldwell Banker Bain in Bellingham.
The correlation might be stronger between levy vote and political preference, rather than home price. Of the 67 voting precincts in the city, the two that were least supportive of the Home Fund were also most supportive of Rob McKenna, Republican candidate for governor. Nine of the 12 precincts most opposed to the Home Fund were also among the 12 most supportive of McKenna.
The most conservative precinct in the city, by these measures, is on the east end of Silver Beach, on Lake Whatcom. Precinct 238 voted 66 percent against the Home Fund and 53 percent for McKenna, who lost Bellingham by more than a two-to-one margin.
East Silver Beach resident Dusty Gulleson, the local McKenna campaign co-chairman, said the Home Fund is a bad idea because it ironically taxes potential homeowners out of the market, and it misses the target if the aim is to make housing more widely available.
"As a conservative, I believe providing housing is best achieved by creating more opportunity for all, not artificially shrinking the market through further taxation," Gulleson said.
"The bottom line is, taxing more only increases the cost and barriers to those with lower incomes."
He said it would be easy to criticize the owners of some of Bellingham's nicest homes for voting against the tax when they already have so much for themselves.
"When you live around the lake, you get pummeled as a scapegoat. It's expensive to live there. Expenses are high. We pay more than $6,000 in property tax. That's not chump change," Gulleson said.
He says he wants low-income people to have more opportunities for affordable housing, as does Perry Eskridge, an organizer of the anti-levy campaign group called People for Affordable Housing Choices.
The difference is in how those opportunities are provided.
"A lot of people in the Bellingham area don't really worry too much about taxes and government taking more money because that's how they give back. They believe government does a better job of distributing resources than private charities do," Eskridge said. "I don't hold that view. ... I don't trust government to give it to the people who need it at all. ... I would much rather save that money here with me, and I control how it's distributed."
TOP SUPPORTERS, DETRACTORS
Top three neighborhoods that were most and least supportive of the Bellingham Home Fund, the low-income housing levy on the Nov. 6 ballot.
1. Sehome: 75 percent voted "yes."
2. Central Business District: 73 percent.
3. York: 71 percent.
1. Barkley: 41 percent supported the levy.
2. Silver Beach: 42 percent.
3. Alabama Hill: 45 percent.
Source: Whatcom County Auditor's Office.
View the full-size PDF of "How Bellingham Voted" by clicking here.