Now Whatcom County’s severe housing problems are impacting health rankings

An estimated 1 in 5 Whatcom County households have “severe housing problems,” according to an annual report that ranks the health of counties nationwide.

That’s defined as those struggling with at least one of four issues: high housing costs, overcrowding and lack of kitchen or plumbing facilities, according to the 2019 County Health Rankings.

The annual report assesses how healthy residents are and looks at data across more than 30 categories that influence health, including education, housing, jobs, smoking and access to healthy food.

And while housing has long been a measure in the ranking, this was the first year housing was the focus of its national key findings. That provided a deeper dive into housing as a factor that affected residents’ health.

“What we really wanted to highlight was that our homes and our neighborhoods play a critical role in shaping our health and the health of the entire community,” said Aliana Havrilla, who is with County Health Rankings, said to The Bellingham Herald.

“What the ranking model shows is health outcomes are shaped by many factors beyond what happens at your doctor’s office,” she said.

What’s of note is that, overall, Whatcom County is the ninth healthiest county out of the 39 in Washington state.

That’s the good news.

The picture changes when looking at housing.

That measure showed that 20 percent of Whatcom County households faced severe housing problems.

As a result, Whatcom was in the bottom eight for counties when it comes to households struggling with housing.

Those rankings were:

Whatcom, 20% of households have severe housing problems.

Skagit, 21%

Yakima, 21%

Adams, 22%

San Juan, 22%

Franklin, 22%

Kittitas, 23%

Whitman, 25%

For struggling households, the biggest issue was severe cost burden — defined as paying more than 50 percent of their monthly income for housing, including utilities.

Whatcom County also didn’t fare well by those measures.

It was among the bottom three in terms of the percentage of households facing an oversized bill to house themselves. Those rankings were:

Whatcom, 18%.

Kittitas, 20%.

Whitman, 24%.

That matters because when too much of a household’s paycheck goes toward rent or a mortgage, it makes it hard to afford going to the doctor, paying bills or maintaining reliable transportation to go to work or school, Havrilla said.

The findings reinforce what’s been known here.

Whatcom County residents face a tough housing market, with rents and housing prices outpacing wages. Finding a place to live is also harder because of low vacancy rates for rentals.

The cost ratio in Whatcom County is higher than the national average, according to the report’s key findings.

“Across the U.S., more than 1 in 10 households (11%) spend more than half of their income on housing costs (severe housing cost burden),” the key findings state. “Among those who own their home, housing cost burden has decreased in the past decade.

“At the same time, there has been no improvement in the rates among renters. Housing cost burden remains substantially higher among renters than owners, particularly for households with low incomes,” it adds.

The rankings are a collaboration of the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Find the full report at countyhealthrankings.org.

Kie Relyea has been a reporter at The Bellingham Herald since 1997 and currently writes about social services and recreation in Whatcom County. She started her career in 1991 as a reporter and editor in Northern California.