A Perfect Storm
Wednesday, March 29, 2017
A PERFECT STORM: The City of Bellingham released its 2017 community survey this week, a comprehensive report produced in collaboration with demographers at Western Washington University that attempts to capture residents’ views about issues facing the city. The survey polled about 7,000 residents through a combination of phone and web-based responses.
The good news, ’hamsters are extremely positive about the overall quality of life in Bellingham. Ninety-four percent of poll respondents rated that factor good to excellent in the survey, with only two respondents in the entire survey finding the quality of life poor.
The bad news, residents see a trifecta of economic insecurity, housing insecurity and homelessness as threats and erosion to that sense of civic well-being. Survey respondents ranked them in reverse order—with 55 percent finding homelessness the primary problem facing the city; 43 percent believe housing affordability is an emergent crisis; and 28 percent selected growth and economic development as a paramount concern—but one cascades from the other, and all are intertwined. Some are in collision:
“Historically, there has been a negative trend concerning respondents’ views of the job the city is doing to plan for future growth overall, encourage economic development, and stimulate business growth,” demographers at WWU’s Center for Economic and Business Research noted in their report. “This year, only 30 percent of respondents rate the city’s efforts planning for growth as excellent or good, compared to a 36 percent positive response rate in 2013, 38 percent in 2010, and 33 percent in 2008. Additionally, many respondents think there is room to grow when it comes to the city’s efforts encouraging economic development and business growth.”
Housing affordability is rated as the second most important challenge facing Bellingham.
“The current ratings of housing affordability have dropped significantly since 2013,” the report authors note, a watermark escalation of a trend that tracks with rising homelessness like a hand fits a glove. “The decline in housing affordability is reflected throughout the state. In Washington State, median sales price rose to $331,100 in the Third Quarter of 2016, a 13.2 percent increase from a year before. In Whatcom County, median sales price sits at $316,900, an 8.5 percent increase from the year before,” according to the University of Washington’s Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies.
“Meaningful and sustainable employment is the key to creating and maintaining housing stability,” researchers at the National Coalition for the Homeless report. “Unemployment, underemployment, and low wages relative to rent are frequent causes of homelessness and burden millions of families with the risk of becoming homeless.
“The lack of affordable housing and the limited scale of housing assistance programs contributes to the current housing crisis and to homelessness. This deficit of affordable housing has led to high rent burdens, overcrowding, and substandard housing, which has not only forced many people to become homeless but has also put a growing number of people at risk of becoming homeless.”
The very visibility of homelessness and its unsightly, destabilizing impacts to Bellingham’s commercial centers and parks are perhaps factors that drive the issue to the top of the list of residents’ concerns about a diminished quality of life.
“The issue of homelessness is heavily present throughout survey responses,” Western Center researchers reported. “Respondents rank homelessness as the most important challenge facing Bellingham. Additionally, hundreds of responses to open-end questions discuss the challenge of homelessness in Bellingham in depth.”
When asked what positive changes respondents would make as a city leader, “solve homelessness” is mentioned more than any other topic. But residents aren’t ignorant about the form of those solutions, citing job creation, response to affordability, and improvement to public health care (including mental health care) in their list of policy directives leaders should pursue.
Notably absent were suggestions that the criminal justice system is the appropriate venue to address issues related to homelessness; however, “respondents report feeling less safe downtown during the day and night than in any previous survey,” Western Center authors note. Notably, only 8 percent of respondents report feeling extremely safe walking alone downtown at night. While 46 percent do feel somewhat safe, 30 percent feel not very safe, and 17 percent feel not at all safe.
“The United States did not always have such a dire lack of affordable housing,” researchers at the National Coalition for the Homeless note. “The 1970s into the 1980s saw drastic cuts to federal affordable housing programs. Today, there is much focus on creating permanent supportive housing for people who chronically experience homelessness due to disability or health issues. But building affordable housing takes too long in most cities because of political foot-dragging, municipal agency delays, and the painstaking process of raising money from multiple sources. As a result, affordable housing is not being built at a pace fast enough to end homelessness.”
As in a perfect storm, where two rising weather systems collide into the cataclysmic energy of a third, Bellingham home prices recovered much more quickly from the recession of 2007—approaching their highs at moment of implosion of the housing bubble that precipitated the crash—than did the economic indicators that might persuade lenders to advance the finances to purchase those homes. Employment has mostly returned to pre-recession levels, but the nature of those jobs and the wages they pay have changed. Gone is the assurance of stable, career employment. And fully 70 percent of the chronically unsheltered on the streets of Bellingham formerly held a local address, according to surveys by the Opportunity Council’s Homeless Service Center and the City of Bellingham’s Homeless Outreach Team. They’re, in the main, not coming from elsewhere—they were already here and, by a constellation of reasons, displaced.
In sum, the community survey verifies concerns already known and catalogued, and for that is valuable reference and reinforcement.
“The people of Bellingham care deeply about our city,” Mayor Kelli Linville said, “and that was clear by the great feedback we received in this survey.”