The Bellingham 2012 Housing Levy is a significant milestone for affordable housing in Bellingham. It is also a beacon of hope for many housing advocates in other communities in the state of Washington who wish they could pass a levy in their locality. There have been a handful of other levies passed in other Washington cities (for example, Kent, Everett and Seattle), usually for a specific property with a specific use, such as elderly housing. Only Seattle has passed a general affordable housing levy, which has been renewed four times.
I have served as the executive director/CEO of the Bellingham and Whatcom County Housing authorities for 24 years. Bellingham is by far the most receptive community to affordable housing I have worked in during a housing career spanning 40 years.
Bellingham is, indeed, a very special place which has a collective sense of caring about each other, the environment and the community as a whole. This is not just a lofty sentiment. The citizens of Bellingham have manifested their community spirit in tangible ways by repeatedly passing levies to tax themselves for greenways, better schools, emergency services, mental health and transit among other civic-minded ventures. I should add that the local governments, social services agencies, businesses and charitable organizations have an ability to cooperate on long-term and short-term projects to an extraordinary degree that I have not seen in other communities in which I have lived and worked. While there are disagreements, that is part of the democratic collaborative process.
The housing levy puts a $21 million resource to work over a seven-year period to develop and support affordable housing. Almost all affordable housing development over the past two decades has become a complex choreography of assembling public funds, private investments and private financing into partnerships and corporations that are often controlled by public or non-profit sponsors. While the complexity may seem like a drawback, this actually creates many opportunities to use smaller grant or low-interest loan funding sources to create affordability for housing, and leverage the larger sources to complete the financial package.
The housing levy is a prime example of a successful ballot measure to support affordable housing that allows developers of rental housing communities to attract other funds to multiply by three to five times the portion contributed by the City of Bellingham from the levy proceeds. The need for this type of housing is evidenced by the fact that of all households for 2012 in Bellingham earning less than 50 percent of adjusted median income (one person, $23,750; two people, $27,150; four people, $33,900), 59 percent of this population are paying more than 50 percent of their income for housing. Also, it should be noted that most people in this category have incomes well below the 50 percent top level for the group.
As well as adding to the general affordable housing supply, the levy will prioritize assistance in many other areas such as the homeless; meeting the housing and service needs of the elderly; and providing resources for special needs populations such as domestic violence victims, abused or neglected children, those with mental health issues and returning veterans who need their community's support to re-adjust to civilian life.
Much of the Bellingham housing stock is showing significant effects of aging. The levy provides for preservation of this housing through rehabilitation involving fixing roofs, wall waterproofing, electrical hazards and heating and plumbing systems is a highly cost effective way of extending the useful life of existing housing.
Bellingham can be very proud of passing its 2012 housing levy and providing a strong foundation to boost the housing conditions of its citizens. The City of Subdued Excitement once again shows it knows how to get the job done in its own quiet, confident way.
John Harmon is the executive director/CEO of the Bellingham and Whatcom County Housing authorities.