Spotlight Bellingham

Community Spotlight: Bellingham, Washington

Community Spotlight is a series highlighting some of the communities where Mercy Housing Northwest has a presence. In this series, we discuss how the affordability crisis is impacting each unique community and how Mercy Housing Northwest is working with partners to overcome the challenge. For this story, we interview Samya Lutz, Housing & Services Program Manager for the City of Bellingham who talks about this growing city and why affordable housing is needed.

Recently, Mercy Housing Northwest celebrated the groundbreaking of Millworks, an affordable housing community near the Port of Bellingham. When completed, Millworks will not only welcome 83 families home, but it will also mark a major milestone for our organization. When it opens, Mercy Housing will have 457 apartment homes in Bellingham and over 550 in Whatcom County. Together, this accounts for 25% of our entire portfolio.

For its part, Bellingham continues to attract people thanks in part to a high quality of life and an abundance of outdoor recreation activities. From 2010 to 2022, the population of the city grew by 16.1%. This growth has presented some unique challenges.

Addressing Housing Challenges in Bellingham 

According to Samya Lutz, “58% of renters in Bellingham pay more than 30% of their income in housing.” This fact makes it nearly impossible to save for a home and to build generational wealth. It also makes families vulnerable to housing insecurity. “A lack of affordable housing contributes to the rise in homelessness because it is ever more difficult for residents to afford basic needs like food, healthcare, transportation, or to save money for emergency expenses,” said Lutz.

In Bellingham, the median family income for 2022 was $97,300 for a family of four, but that same family would need a median income of $154,000 to purchase a home. Simply put, the dream of homeownership is too far out of reach for the average family and a lack of affordable housing makes it even more challenging to stay ahead.

To keep the challenge from growing worse, Whatcom County needs an additional 34,284 homes by 2044. Over the next 20 years, that translates to 1,600-1,700 units per year countywide. But, according to Lutz, “Bellingham has accounted for 48% of the housing production and needs to build about 8,000 homes over the next ten years. Over the past five years, Bellingham has averaged 800 homes a year or 10% of what is needed.” If drastic changes are not made, a dire lack of housing will only grow worse.

Encouraging Signs

There are bright spots, though. Bellingham residents stepped forward with boldness in 2018 and renewed a housing levy. This funding was instrumental in helping get Mercy Housing communities such as Eleanor, Trailview, and Millworks off the ground. This funding also helped rescue 145 apartment homes at Evergreen Ridge from converting from affordable to market-rate housing. These steps, coupled with the actions of other organizations and community leaders, are beginning to make a serious dent in the challenges before Bellingham and Whatcom County.

From city and county officials to nonprofit partners, Mercy Housing Northwest has been lucky to work alongside courageous leaders who understand the complexities of the affordable housing crisis and display a strong willingness to find equitable solutions.