After 20 years in the Park Service, my husband Michael did a very brave thing. He took a job in town and a substantial pay cut in order to be able to come home to his kid every night. The lifestyle we had been living, with me working in town and Michael working away for long stretches of time on wild fire assignments, was putting a strain on our family. We knew finances would be tight if we did this, but we were willing to take the risk.
After all, we had affordable rent. What was the worst thing that could happen?
We had lived in our place there for 15 years. It was small and run down and drafty, but we were accustomed to Park Service housing so it did not bother us too much. We were good tenants and paid our rent on time. It wasn’t where we wanted to live forever, but, like many, we were hopeful that we could someday buy a place of our own.
Three days after the new hire paperwork was signed and Michael put in his notice with the Park Service, the landlords, who owned tons of properties throughout the county, told us they were selling our house.
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The day the real estate agent came to show our house to potential buyers felt like something out of a dystopian Dickens novel. People shuffled through our apartment, opening cupboards and closets to see the storage capacity. I made sure there were pictures of our family on the fridge, next to our daughter’s preschool artwork, and a prominent thank you note from a small community in Oregon thanking my husband for saving their home from a fire. I did everything I could to show them we were good people; to make them think twice before throwing us out.
The house sold after three days on the market.
The new owner bought the place through a broker and paid $500,000 cash without ever seeing it. A week later, he came to talk to us.
We made small talk, and he asked us what we did for a living.
I told him I plant trees to restore wetlands and my husband spent the last 20 years of his life protecting people’s homes and thousands of acres of national forest lands from wildfire.
We had managed to save a little money, but quickly learned that the sum we had saved would hardly cover the closing costs in today’s market, let alone make any sort of down payment.
He made no response and shifted uncomfortably. It was apparent that he was fighting the urge to see us as respectable people, which could only mean one thing. A few minutes later, he told us that we had until the end of July to get out.
Almost every day after that, the land management agency put up “notices of entry” on every visible door or the house. They looked like eviction notices to passersby and we felt like like we were being accused of some sort of crime.
We knew we were being driven out and it was clear to us that until we owned the house we lived in, we would never have true security.
We attended Kulshun Community Land Trust’s homebuyer education class, to see what options were available to us. We had managed to save a little money, but quickly learned that the sum we had saved would hardly cover the closing costs in today’s market, let alone make any sort of down payment.
We were surrounded by nurses, teachers, paramedics and non-profit employees – everyone who attended the class that day had a story just like ours. The class was thorough and the people teaching it really cared about affordable housing for the working class. With the market skyrocketing, however, there isn’t much they can do to change things. Wealthy outsiders are buying up all the single family homes in Bellingham and driving up the prices of everything. The American dream is becoming impossible for a lot of Americans to achieve – Americans who are educated, pay their taxes and work the jobs that save lives, serve the community and seek a sustainable future.
People like us are an integral part of what makes this community awesome and yet we are swimming upstream trying to afford the means to live here. It is time for this community to admit that this isn’t just the working class’ problem, it’s everyone’s problem. We chose civil service careers willingly because we wanted to be part of something bigger than ourselves, and we shouldn’t be punished for it.
After all, this is our home too. We have a right to live here. Don’t we?
Beth Loudon wrote this for Sustainable Connections and Whatcom Housing Week. She graduated from Western Washington University in 2002 with a bachelor’s degree in writing. She served two years in the Washington Conservation Corps in Whatcom County, and works for a small habitat restoration company called Squalicum Mountain Ecological restoration. She is a crew member aboard The Schooner Zodiac and sings in a local Irish band called The Porchlights.
The Nov. 6-9 Whatcom Housing Week offers presentations from national experts, deep-dive workshops and tours to increase opportunities for people of all income levels to have the opportunity to live in walkable neighborhoods that foster healthy lifestyles. Events are open to the public but some require advance registration. Many of the events are free. For details, go online to whatcomhousingweek.org.
Housing Week sponsors are Sustainable Connections, Kulshan CLT, Unity Care NW, Opportunity Council, Community Health Plan of Washington, Chuckanut Health Foundation, the city of Bellingham, United Way, Whatcom Community Foundation, Puget Sound Energy and Whatcom County Health Department.
Share stories: Community members are encouraged to share their own housing stories at sustainableconnections.org/my-housing-story.