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They talked about ‘income discrimination.’ What does that mean?

What can be done about the high cost of housing in Bellingham?

Bellingham residents discuss the high cost of housing at a Bellingham City Council town hall meeting Tuesday, June 13, 2017, at Bellingham High School.
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Bellingham residents discuss the high cost of housing at a Bellingham City Council town hall meeting Tuesday, June 13, 2017, at Bellingham High School.

Rising rents and landlords who refuse to rent to low-income applicants emerged as key issues at a special Bellingham City Council town hall Tuesday night to address the area’s housing crisis.

The two-hour event featured a panel discussion among four experts with experience in different housing-related fields, followed by questions from members of the audience. About 200 people attended the event in the Bellingham High School theater.

Bellingham labor organizer Hannah Fishman, who’s part of the newly formed Bellingham Tenants’ Union, urged the city to encourage more affordable housing and work toward preventing so-called “income discrimination.”

She said she recently learned her portion of her rent is going up more than $150 a month.

“That was crazy, it was unaffordable,” Fishman said. “We as working people living here can no longer afford to be living in the city. I’m going to be moving out to the county, in all likelihood, and spending more on gas and burning more fossil fuels commuting here to work. But I’m really very lucky to even be able to do that.”

Panelists included Rose Lathrop, green building and smart growth program manager at Sustainable Connections; Greg Winter, executive director of the Opportunity Council; Rick Sepler, director of the Bellingham Planning and Community Development Department, and Tedd Kelleher, managing director of housing assistance for the state Department of Commerce.

Why did we not take Section 8 Housing? It was extra work, and that’s it.

Sam Grello

April McCabe, a housing case manager at the Opportunity Council, spoke of a mother and her 10-year-old child who would soon be homeless because the mother couldn’t find a landlord to accept her Section 8 voucher, which is a guaranteed monthly check from the federal government.

“Frankly, it’s really hard to stay positive with our clients and to hold them to that hope when we’re looking online together for housing and we see nothing that’s in their budget,” McCabe said. “Their voucher is going to expire in a week and they have no housing options as of now. Passing an ordinance that bans income discrimination really needs to happen.”

Sam Grello, a real estate agent and a renter who also worked for a property management company, said there’s no valid reason for landlords not to accept Section 8 vouchers.

“Why did we not take Section 8 Housing? It was extra work, and that’s it,” Grello said. “That was one of the primary reasons and I think that that’s wrong.”

Council members sought the session to hear ideas as the city works toward a solution on housing, said council member Michael Lilliquist. In a recent survey, Bellingham residents listed homelessness and the lack of affordable housing as among the key issues facing the city.

$947 Average monthly Bellingham rent in June 2015.

$1,460Average monthly Bellingham rent in May 2017.

In a phone conversation Wednesday, Lilliquist said city officials are looking at the Section 8 refusal issue, adding there’s some precedent for city ordinances regulating acceptance.

Panel speakers noted that after several stagnant post-recession years, the price of housing has risen sharply not only in Bellingham, but also across the state. Kelleher said the rise in homelessness is directly linked to rising rents.

We as working people living here can no longer afford to be living in the city.

Hannah Fishman

Rent Jungle, which tracks market trends in rental housing, shows a sharp series of increases in average rent for all size Bellingham apartments began in June 2015, when average monthly rent was $947. In May 2017, that figure was $1,460.

According to a survey released last week by the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance and the National Low Income Housing Coalition, it takes someone earning the state minimum of $11 an hour to work 52 hours a week to afford fair market rent on a one-bedroom apartment in Whatcom County.

Alan Krum, a former tech worker who moved to Bellingham from Seattle, said he lost everything when his partner fell ill. He’s now on disability and Medicare, and receives a monthly Section 8 voucher.

“I would strongly recommend that we need protection,” said Krum, who’s also experienced homelessness. “The fact that landlords have declined so much in reporting Section 8 is a major problem.”

Krum also urged the council to continue its program of neighborhood “infill “ and to do more to allow the growing national trend of tiny homes.

Robert Mittendorf: 360-756-2805, @BhamMitty

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