Interview with Greg Winter, chair of the Whatcom County Coalition for the Homeless.
What is the Whatcom County Coalition for the Homeless?
It’s a network of service providers and people who have experienced homelessness. We get together monthly, or as needed. We are an advocacy and planning organization. We collaborate on new strategies to implement the ten year plan to end homelessness which is our blue print.
How affordable is affordable housing in your community? Is there enough of it?
We have seen our vacancy rates plummet from what they used be. It was around 3-4% before the recession and now down to between .9-1.5% over the last couple years. Over that same time frame, the rents have shot up. For example, a one bedroom going for $608 before the recession is now going for $704. We are seeing a direct association between vacancy rates and steeply rising rents. Wages are also declining in lower income groups. So housing increasingly is becoming unaffordable. I’m sure there are similar experiences across the state.
Are there any particular dynamics in your city that contribute to the lack of affordable housing?
Looking at the most recent census data, if we look at extremely low income populations, in Bellingham we’ve got about 3,500-4,000 renter households in that category and 63% of those households are paying more than 50% of their household income towards rent. We have a lack of new housing units on the ground. It’s a problem of low production and increasing demand. The overall population in the city is increasing.
Are there any efforts to increase the number of affordable housing units?
I’m glad you asked! As a matter of fact, there is a group that is asking our city council to place a housing levy on the ballot in November. I’m one of the organizers of that group. We are just about to go public with that very soon. We believe we have council support to put it on the ballot. It is modeled closely on the Seattle housing levy but scaled down to match our size.
What kind of affordable housing programs are present in your city? Who is eligible?
We have Section 8 programs. Well they’re not really “available” but it operates. The waitlist just doesn’t move anymore. We used to regularly turn over 25 vouchers per month and now we’re down to 8 per month. There are options such as public housing—that’s the housing authority. We also operate housing programs through the Homeless Service Center and our partner agencies that deal with homelessness using a range of services from small amounts of temporary financial assistance all the way up to permanent housing for chronic homelessness and support services. We have a wide range of programs but they are under resourced and have to be rationed.
You say that Section 8 is not really available. What do you mean by that?
The Section 8 program is a rent subsidy program where somebody qualifies if they have a family that is very low income. This program provides them with a voucher that will pay part of their rent. The family pays 30% of their income towards rent and the voucher is basically like a certificate that will cover the rest of rent. The reason I say it’s not really available is that it’s not really available the way it used to be. People are not moving out of the program because of low employment in the past few years. People who would have graduated because they would make too much money and no longer be eligible and move out—well, they’re no longer moving out. So now the wait list for these Section 8 vouchers is many years. I’ve heard anywhere from 7-8 years.
What would you like the readers to take away?
Despite some of these problems, one of the things we are excited about and want to create excitement around is our upcoming housing campaign. We have a lot of talented organizations and individuals in our community. We’ve measured a 43% decrease in homelessness and even deeper decreases in certain sub-populations. For example, we’ve seen a 65% decrease in veterans homelessness. So we know we have talent and expertise. If we could bring in more resources such as the housing levy would provide, we can make new housing work well for the community.
In Whatcom County, the success we’ve enjoyed is due to the really strong collaboration around ending homelessness. We all as a community advocate for ending homelessness, and are poised to take it to the next level. We ask voters to support the [upcoming] housing levy-the impact will be huge!
Thank you, Greg, for taking the time to share with us! Firesteel looks forward to supporting your future housing advocacy efforts.