Rising housing costs, falling wages and a troubled economy have deepened what was already a housing crisis for low income families in Whatcom County. Statewide, the percentage of families living in poverty is 11.4 percent. Here in Whatcom County, that number is 16 percent.
As many as 20,000 local families are currently spending more than half their income on housing costs. Low-income families struggling to keep a roof over their heads are often forced to choose between paying rent and affording health care, supporting children's education and saving for the future.
Here are just a few faces of this crisis:
Dan VanDyken had a long career working in construction. But a severe illness and several strokes left him with a mountain of medical debt and no job. Unable to afford the home in Bellingham that he shared with his wife and grandson, his family was forced to move to a small, uninsulated cabin in Glacier. The cabin is only a few hundred square feet and in winter it can cost several hundred dollars a month to heat. The VanDykens have been there for two and half years.
Resham Kaur struggles to support herself and her husband, who is deaf, on her salary as a full time fast-food worker. Once the essential bills and the rent on their small apartment are paid, there is no money left over to save for emergencies or retirement.
Julio Ortiz works 60 hour weeks at a local berry farm supporting his wife and four young children. He and his wife have no health insurance and can barely afford the rent on their overcrowded home. Julio dreams of training for a better job, perhaps as a teacher, but has no time or money to pursue his education.
Habitat for Humanity in Whatcom County is a Christian anti-poverty ministry that builds simple, decent, affordable homes and sells them at cost, with a zero percent mortgage, to hard-working, low income families like these.
Fighting poverty through homeownership is a significant investment to make in one family at a time, but there is a mountain of evidence that tells us it's worth it - not just for the families, but for the communities where they live.
Homeowners pay property taxes. They are more likely to be informed about and involved in their communities in a variety of ways. They are more likely to vote.
Children in adequate housing have fewer health problems. They are 25 percent more likely to graduate high school, and 116 percent more likely to finish college. They make more money over their lives and are more likely to own homes themselves.
It's a virtuous cycle. And the financial support Habitat raises from the community to build our homes is paid pack in families' mortgages, helping to build more and more affordable homes.
Habitat for Humanity affiliates around the world have built over 500,000 simple decent homes since the 1970s. We've been working in Whatcom County for 25 years. In that time, we've built 35 homes and housed about 150 people. Over 90 percent of our original homeowners are still in their homes, and several have paid off their mortgages. They're working and making plans for their future. They're involved in their communities. Several have sent kids to college.
Today is World Habitat Day - a day when people in countries around the world are thinking, talking and acting to address housing issues. At Habitat for Humanity in Whatcom County, we are using this day as an opportunity invite our community to help us offer a hand up, not a hand out, to families like the VanDykens, Singh-Kaurs and Ortizes.
Helping is so easy that you were probably going to do it anyway. All you have to do is go out to coffee today. A large number of our local coffee shops will be donating proceeds from their sales to help Habitat build homes. No time for a coffee break? You can go online to hfhwhatcom.org and donate $3 (or more) to our "$3=Change" campaign.
If 50,000 of our neighbors can either buy coffee, or make a minimal donation, Habitat for Humanity can build a simple decent home for a family in need. As the saying goes "Many hands make light work." And a little pocket change can make a big change for a family looking for shelter.
BREW FOR BUILDING
Coffee shops donating proceeds Oct. 7 proceeds to Habitat for Humanity are:
Big Al's Diner
Blanchard Mountain Coffee Co.
Lettered Streets Coffee House
Little Red Caboose
Peace Arch City Café
The Rustic Coffee and Wine Bar
Shorty's Coffee Shop
The Woods Coffee (all locations)
Zoom Zoom Espresso
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John Moon is executive director at Habitat for Humanity in Whatcom County.