Despite new waitlist openings, homeless residents downtown struggle to find long-term housing

Kjell Redal

The Whatcom County Housing Authority opened waitlists for the two newest affordable family units at Laurel Village and Walton Place on April 15. The opportunity to join waitlists for the three-bedroom units comes as welcome news for the low-income families that will be placed in them as most of the waitlists for low-income long-term housing in Bellingham have been closed.

Many long-term housing locations have received over 2,500 applications since they were made available, according to Wendy Cruc, the Director of Lease Housing for the Whatcom County Housing Authority.

The housing authority administered a lottery for 500 admissions to their general tenant waitlist in 2014. This was the first opening for that list in six years, said Cruc.

Cruc said Whatcom County has been a leader in Washington state in the amount of short-term services it offers to homeless residents, but lacks enough long-term options due to the overall economic recession since 2008.  

“Bellingham has a lot of [short-term] services, it may be one of the reasons a lot of people have moved here…we got case management support for mental health and they’ve done a good job in this community of addressing homeless needs, and I think that words gets out,” said Cruc.

Konnie Summerlin is one homeless resident making use of such resources. Summerlin moved to Bellingham from Georgia a year ago and is currently eating meals as well as staying part-time at the Lighthouse Mission, a short-term homeless shelter in town.

She has tried to find low-income, long-term housing since she arrived here but is frustrated by the lack of opportunities.

“They got long lists,” says Summerlin, “and they don’t fix them enough when someone dies or moves out … I’m just waiting.”

Cruc says that the housing authority purges their waitlists annually and tries to contact anyone on them to find out whether or not they are still interested.  

The housing market downturn during the recession reduced the number of housing options available. This has had a big effect on low-income housing in Whatcom County, according to Cruc.

She attributes the current long waitlists both to an increased homeless population in Bellingham and a lack of property vacancies due to the recession.

A city of Bellingham housing market analysis says that 1-bedroom apartment vacancy rates have dropped from 4.2 percent in 2004 to 1.4 percent in 2011.

This has made for far fewer placement options for low-income residents.

More families are unable to afford their housing costs in Whatcom County as well.

The median value of homes in Bellingham has increased 96 percent in the past 10 years while the median family income has increased 23 percent in the same time period, according to the city’s housing market analysis.

This has meant that more families are looking for financial assistance in Bellingham that previously didn’t need it, said Cruc.  

One of the other difficulties facing the Whatcom County Housing Authority is an increase in the loan rates on down payments for first-time buyers.

“It used to be a lot easier. They’d have to come up with 5 percent down payment to get into a house and the last six or seven years, the investors out there are pickier and saying 20 percent. Young people are having a harder time getting into their first home because of those limitations that have been placed on them now,” said Cruc.

Private organizations have felt the pressures of the economy and housing market as well. The Catholic Housing Services in Bellingham provide three buildings for long-term housing and there are currently no vacancies in any of them.

While public and private institutions seek to find solutions, homeless residents continue to lack options for long-term low-income housing in Bellingham and Whatcom County.