Though they may seem intractable, Bellingham’s housing issues can be resolved — and they can be resolved without depleting additional community resources. It is possible to provide safe and sustainable housing in this community.
However, it will require immediate and thorough investigation and evaluation of current practices and true independent client advocacy.
A majority of state housing funds are currently directed to and managed by housing authorities. In our community, Bellingham Housing Authority (BHA) is the central provider of affordable housing. We, as the public, deserve oversight and accountability with regard to the agency’s procedures, personnel and decisions.
There are myriad issues that need to be addressed. Here are a few:
Client housing incentives
There are few incentives to ensure that, once housed, tenants remain safely in their space. An estimated 1,200 individuals are on the waitlist for BHA housing, so filling a vacancy is never a problem. This is apparent in the lack of protections for renters. After the first lease year, tenants with Section 8 vouchers are often moved to month-to-month tenancy, putting them at risk of rental increases and lease changes.
This presents problems in the instance of tenancy disputes. BHA does not assist Section 8 tenants with discussions or negotiations with landlords concerning rent or increases. This prohibits any relationship that outlines need or options and provides the potential for landlords to take advantage of clients, who have limited options. And at a time when Section 8 and other vouchers simply aren’t covering the cost of housing, the options are truly limited. Without incentives for BHA to keep tenants housed, they are often treated as disposable and allowed to once again wind up on the streets.
We know that many, many homeless individuals live with some kind of disability, and that many who are on the fringes of homelessness are also struggling. It stands to reason, then, that ample accommodations for those with disabilities must be provided by our housing authorities; currently, clients are required to do their own complex paperwork without assistance and be party to inspections of premises without sufficient help to prepare or be on site due to physical disabilities.
A recent example is a disabled patron who notified BHA of need for extensions, assistance and advance notice of any forms or entries with phone and post, as well as need for adequate time to obtain disability assistance. While medical support letters were provided, BHA reportedly denied the request, declining to put reasons in writing.
Last year, the Bellingham City Council voted to actively prohibit source-of-income discrimination with regard to renting. BHA’s then-executive director, John Harmon, testified to say that as long as they used “legitimate criteria,” honest landlords wouldn’t have a problem with the measure. But in their own assessments of tenant criteria, BHA has anecdotally been less than clear. The agency has reportedly used non-monetary items, like bus or gas cards or other basic needs, to determine income. As a result, BHA has allegedly denied housing to individuals who are then left without recourse or other options.
BHA owns, manages and partners with dozens of properties around Whatcom County, and demand for affordable and below-market housing has only continued to grow. For prospective tenants who need to find a place to live that they can afford, BHA can be a lifeline — but its large footprint also means that if tenants end up on the wrong side of them, they may be left without a place to live.
The Bellingham Housing Authority plays a key role in the ability of our neighbors to obtain housing and remain housed. They are also key players in issues that can actually create homelessness rather than reduce it.
Simply by immediately beginning the process of asking for specific information and starting research on all these issues, this council can save homes and, often, lives.
The op-ed was submitted anonymously to avoid retaliation and further discrimination.
Check out the full Oct. 3 - 9 issue.
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