October 14, 2021
Election 2021: Addressing homelessness is priority for city, county candidates — and there’s agreement on how to do so
Lauren Gallup

The Base Camp shelter operated in downtown Bellingham by the Lighthouse Mission already in mid-October is nearly full nightly, a prime indicator for concern around the needs of unhoused people. Candidates for City of Bellingham and Whatcom County council positions share a sense of urgency about the housing crisis and ideas about how to address it, with most emphasizing the need for more affordable housing as part of the remedy. (Amy Nelson photo © 2021)

October 14, 2021
Election 2021: Addressing homelessness is priority for city, county candidates — and there’s agreement on how to do so
Lauren Gallup

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As of Oct. 12, the Lighthouse Mission’s Base Camp shelter in Bellingham for those experiencing homelessness was 96% full — a worrying percentage to some, including candidates for city and county council positions in this election.

Ultimately, there are not enough options for those experiencing homelessness. 

Eve Smason-Marcus, candidate for Bellingham City Council Ward 6, emphasized the urgency of this. Although an overflow shelter is scheduled to open with 40 beds later this month, Smason-Marcus said it’s still not enough. At the last point-in-time survey on Jan. 28, Whatcom County’s homeless population was 859. 

Establishing Base Camp to shelter those experiencing homelessness during the pandemic was one of a number of actions the city and county took supported in years past to address the growing crisis of homelessness in the region. But the problem still exists, and current city and county council members along with challengers in the race say they want to do more to address this.

Ask any of the candidates Salish Current interviewed for this article and they’ll say the major driver of homelessness is the lack of affordable housing. 

“There’s a fundamental economic imbalance between what most people earn and what housing costs,” Michael Lilliquist, Smason-Marcus’s opponent, said.

With all 11 in agreement on what the issue is, they also echoed each other in the major ways to solve it. While no one believes there is a silver bullet to fix homelessness, candidates identified three major strategies to tackle the housing crisis.

(Editor’s note: Candidates Barry Buchanan and Kamal Bhachu did not respond to email and phone requests for interviews for this story.)

Land for housing

Many of the candidates expressed a desire to purchase land, using city and county funding, on which to build affordable housing.

“The market’s not going to create the housing at the price, at the entry point that people who might end up on the streets need,” said Todd Donovan, who currently serves as the Whatcom County Council’s District 2 representative and is running unopposed for reelection.

While the city and county don’t have the capacity to manage affordable housing units, they can provide funding to nonprofits to facilitate this. Smason-Marcus sees these partnerships within the community as the path to success. 

Eleanor Apartments, funded in part by the Bellingham Home Fund to create 80 affordable housing units for seniors, also accommodates on-site health and wellness services. A patio garden is still producing herbs, flowers and a few vegetables in mid-October. (Amy Nelson photo © 2021)

“It’s got to be about partnerships, relationships, working with our community land trusts, making sure they have the funding,” Smason-Marcus said.

Smason-Marcus pointed to the idea of limited equity cooperatives, which according to housing policy platform Local Housing Solutions is “a homeownership model in which residents purchase a share in a development (rather than an individual unit) and commit to resell their share at a price determined by formula — an arrangement that maintains affordability at purchase and over the long term.”

The pandemic brought federal aid dollars through the American Rescue Plan and the CARES Act, which candidates feel gives them an opportunity to make progress on affordable housing projects.

“We have for the next three years an unprecedented amount of money,” Donovan said. “So, I think buying land that we can then get some of these nonprofits to start planning projects on is important.”

Donovan said he is currently nudging Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu to use the remaining $50 million from the American Rescue Plan and the CARES Act for the county for housing and childcare.

Housing levy

Another way candidates see affordable housing efforts being funded is by the local sales and use tax. Washington House Bill 1590, passed and signed in March 2020, allows for councils to use 1/10th of 1% of sales and use tax for affordable housing. Lilliquist said this brings in around $3 million per year for the city. The county would have roughly $2 million. 

Lilliquist and Hollie Huthman, the incumbent running for city council Ward 2, both said they would like to see this money be spent on transitional housing for families.

The city and county have previously funded nonprofits’ affordable housing projects, such as the Eleanor Apartments, which have 80 affordable housing units for seniors, and on-site health and wellness services provided by PeaceHealth. This was funded in part by the Bellingham Home Fund.

Skip Williams, who is running unopposed for city council Ward 4, cited the fund, a levy that voters passed in 2012 and in 2018, which supports affordable housing efforts by the city. According to the city’s webpage on the fund, it has created 376 units of rental and transitional housing since 2013. 

Kaylee Galloway, running for county council District 1, said she would like to see the county explore implementing a similar levy.

Huthman said via email that the city is equipped to provide this support for capital improvements for affordable housing and shelter, and she would like to establish more permanent supportive housing, like Frances Place and 22 North. Operated by Catholic Community Services, Frances Place provides 42 units of permanent, affordable housing, while 22 North, a collaboration between Northwest Youth Services and the Opportunity Council, offers 40 apartments to adults experiencing homelessness. 

The rooftops of the multicolored tiny homes of Gardenview look out over the community gardens on Woburn Street. The 30-unit village is scheduled to open next week, and is the result of a collaboration between housing nonprofits and the City of Bellingham. (Amy Nelson photo © 2021)

Last year, the city partnered with the nonprofits Low-Income Housing Institute and Road2Home to develop Gardenview, a tiny house village, scheduled to open next week. Medically fragile people and those over 55 will have priority for the 30-plus units going in on Woburn Street. 

Beyond what the city has been doing, Russ Whidbee, running for the Bellingham city council’s at-large position, said he would like to explore the option of a low-barrier shelter in the city, something Williams and Eddy Ury, Galloway’s opponent, echoed. 

According to the Housing Families First website, low-barrier means there are few criteria to staying in the shelter, meaning there are often no curfew, sobriety or background-check requirements. The website says “a low-barrier program honors the dignity of each family, treating them as experts on their own needs and equal partners with program staff in finding solutions to meet their needs.”

Zoning and permitting

Rebecca Lewis, Whatcom County District 3 council candidate, said she’s a proponent of the county allowing for multi-use zoning to better expand affordable housing options, a point that Kristina Michele Martens, Whidbee’s opponent, also made.

“If we don’t take actions like these, rent will continue climbing as apartments keep going up, and we will have missed an effective opportunity to mitigate homelessness in our city,” Martens said via email.

Inclusionary zoning, a broad term that means cities and counties incentivize developers to include a certain amount of affordable housing units in their construction, is something that Williams, Smason-Marcus and Whidbee all said would be in their plans to tackle affordable housing.

“I would be pushing for this because we’re going to need everyone at the table and all ideas to solve this issue,” Whidbee said. 

Tyler Byrd, Lewis’ opponent and the incumbent, was the only candidate Salish Current spoke with who prioritized the need for more median-income-level housing in the county. Byrd feels that the lack of homes in the $400,000 to $500,000 range means folks who could afford them end up buying down, and taking away affordable housing options.

“Not to say we stop doing all affordable housing projects and subsidized housing projects. We shouldn’t do that by any means, but we really need to put a lot of emphasis on those single-family homes and that middle-market, middle-income bracket,” Byrd said.

He said he sees this action as happening through improving the permitting process, to make securing a permit quicker. 

Safe designated encampments

Besides creating more housing, many of the candidates suggested that the city and county make encampments safer for those sleeping on the streets or in vehicles. 

Williams suggested these encampments have services for those living there such as mental health, community health and further housing options, something that Ury also felt could be part of the solution. Galloway suggested the county explore a similar option of designating safe parking space for those living in vehicles, where electricity and hygiene services would be provided.

Because of the rural nature of District 3, Lewis said there are a lot of people living in the woods and she would like to see more services specific to the needs of this community. For example, Lewis wants access to public bathrooms tripled, and more transportation support, with expanded bus stops and a program for free fare for those below a certain income. 

By increasing transportation to more urban areas, she said residents will have more access to medical services, employment and childcare options, addressing issues that compound and contribute to homelessness. 

“People literally have to travel from District 3 into town. And if you don’t have a car, how are you able to even get those basic services? And then of course, that can snowball and lead to homelessness,” Lewis said.

‘Cleaning’ or ‘sweeping’

Actions seen by the city as dissolving homeless encampments when hazards or threats have been identified have been met with opposition by some advocates for unhoused people occupying the sites who see the actions “sweeps”; above, protestors block the way during an event in front of Bellingham City Hall early this year. (Rowan Forsythe photo © 2021)

On encampments, Lilliquist said the city’s position is to dissolve them only when there is an identified hazard or threat. 

“There are well over a hundred, maybe as much as 200 homeless encampments right now throughout the city of Bellingham known to the city. We’re not cleaning them up. We don’t want to clean them up. In my opinion, if we cleaned them up, they [would] have no place to go,” Lilliquist said.

When encampments do get dissolved, this action is often called a sweep, a term Lilliquist disagrees with but which Ury, Galloway and Smason-Marcus all used to express frustration with the city’s handling of encampments. (See also “Caught in a web of causes: homelessness hits harder than ever,” Salish Current, Apr. 16 2021)

When the city dissolved Camp 210 in front of city hall last winter and subsequently camps at Gerri Fields, Laurel Park, Laurel Street and elsewhere, Ury worked to help those affected to retrieve items and find shelter. The complicated processes involved in this made him want to run for council. [Editor’s note: Camp locations at which Ury assisted residents were originally misidentified and incomplete, and have been corrected.]

“If I found it difficult to help someone get into this motel, how would someone who doesn’t have a phone, who’s in a lot of pain, and hungry and cold, going to figure it out?” Ury said. He feels that the system of retrieving items from the police department is an intentional barrier to folks getting back their items.

When the city does go in to dissolve a camp, it can be traumatic, and disruptive, Lilliquist acknowledged.

Lilliquist’s opponent, Smason-Marcus is running to end what they call sweeps.

“The city likes to call them camp cleanups, but what do they entail? They entail destroying people’s homes, destroying people’s belongings and sweeping them off the street,” Smason-Marcus said.

As a resident of downtown Bellingham, Galloway said she has seen the growing number of people experiencing crises in the city, and feels that what she calls sweeps are inhumane, as there are not enough opportunities for people to find shelter elsewhere. She would like to see the county government step up to take on more of the responsibility of housing, through further land acquisition for housing and partnership with nonprofits.

Following the campaign money

Readers can navigate to the “Follow the Money” section on the Washington Public Disclosure Commission site to do just that via daily reports on campaign contributions and expenditures for each of the candidates.

For Whatcom County Council candidates, go to the PDC link for county candidates and type in the name of the candidate. Click on the summary line that appears to delve deeper into names of contributors and amounts as well as details of campaign expenditures.

For Bellingham City Council candidates, do the same after going to PDC link for municipal candidates.

— Reported by Lauren Gallup

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