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To Address Homelessness in Bellingham, Add Housing

Photo credit: Bellingham Metro News

In recent years, homelessness and housing issues have reached crisis levels across the country, with west coast cities like Seattle and San Francisco serving as particularly dire examples. Nationally, the housing outlook is bleak: prices are sky high, supply is low, and more than 580,000 people are currently unhoused, with marginalized communities suffering at the highest rates.

Bellingham has not evaded these issues. The data confirms what many residents of Bellingham know from personal experience: Bellingham has a significant housing deficit. Over the last decade, both homelessness and housing costs have increased sharply in Whatcom County. These trends raise two important questions:

  1. What factors are driving this rise in the prevalence of homelessness in Bellingham?

  2. And what can we do, as a community, to meaningfully address these issues?

While the underlying causes of homelessness are complex, there is a growing body of research indicating that to meaningfully impact homelessness, a city must address its housing deficit. If enough housing units are added to keep up with demand, a community will see vacancy rates reach healthy levels, rental prices moderate, and ultimately, a significant reduction in the number of individuals experiencing homelessness. This research highlights how we can make real progress on housing issues, right here in Bellingham.

Homelessness in Bellingham: 2022 Data & Trends

The best source of data on homelessness in Whatcom County comes from the annual point-in-time census of homeless residents in our community. This annual count, which has been conducted every year since 2008, captures two primary data points: (1) the number of homeless households in our community, and (2) the total number of individuals experiencing homelessness. While the point-in-time count does have limitations – for example, the count only captures information for those who reported they were homeless on a specific night and thus does not account for seasonal fluctuations – it is nevertheless the best available information for identifying year-over-year trends within our community. What this data shows will come as no surprise to Bellingham residents: homelessness has risen sharply over the past decade.

In July, the Whatcom County Coalition to End Homelessness released the results of the 2022 point-in-time count, which took place on February 24th. This year, 639 homeless households were counted – the highest number ever reported since the point-in-time count began. Since 2012 (the lowest total number on record - 367), the number of homeless households in our community has increased by 74%.

However, the total number of individuals experiencing homelessness dropped slightly last year to 832, down 3% from the previous year. While it is encouraging to see this number decrease (albeit only slightly), this total still represents a 68% increase from the 2012 low of 493 individuals experiencing homelessness.

It is also important to recognize that, as noted by a housing specialist with the Whatcom County Department of Health, this 3% decline is within the point-in-time-count’s margin of error and doesn’t necessarily signal a broader decrease in homelessness in the region.

The trend is clear: the number of individuals and households experiencing homelessness in our community has risen significantly over the past decade. But what is driving this increase? Research suggests the single most significant contributing factor is our local housing deficit.

Homelessness (In Bellingham) is a Housing Problem: Insights from Gregg Colburn

In March of 2022, the Whatcom Housing Alliance hosted a webinar with Gregg Colburn as a part of their “Bellingham For Everyone” learning series. Colburn is a housing scholar, an assistant professor at the University of Washington’s College of Built Environments, and co-author of the recent book Homelessness is a Housing Problem: How Structural Factors Explain US Patterns.

In his presentation, Colburn explored a range of individual risk factors commonly believed to impact the prevalence of homelessness including illicit drug use, poverty rates, and mental illness. After comparing data from different cities across the United States, Colburn posed a compelling question: why do these conditions produce homelessness at significantly higher rates in some geographic areas, but not others? For example, Seattle and Chicago have comparable rates of poverty, drug use, and mental illness. If these individual risk factors were the primary drivers of homelessness, why does Seattle have between four and five times the per capita homelessness of Chicago?

The data Colburn presented clearly shows that there is almost no correlation between the prevalence of mental health or illicit drug use and the rates of homelessness within a given community. Interestingly, rates of poverty are inversely correlated to homelessness, meaning, somewhat counterintuitively, that rates of homelessness are actually lower in areas where poverty rates are higher.

If these individual factors don’t explain the prevalence of homelessness, are there structural factors that do? Colburn has identified two factors that seems to drive homelessness: median contract rent and vacancy rates. As vacancy rates go down and average rents go up in a community, one can expect to see a corresponding increase in the prevalence of homelessness.

These two dynamics are clearly present here in Whatcom County: rents have risen sharply over recent years, while rental vacancy rates remain far below the healthy range.

Housing experts like Brien Thane, CEO of the Bellingham Housing Authority, consider a rental vacancy rate of between 5-7% to be “healthy” and indicative of a balanced market. Washington’s statewide vacancy rate – which in the fall of 2021 fell to 3.6% -- currently sits well below that target. But Whatcom County’s vacancy rate is even lower than the state average. The Fall 2021 Washington State Apartment Market Report put Whatcom County’s vacancy rate at 1.0% -- the second lowest in the state. The vacancy rate for single-bedroom apartments in Whatcom County was even worse, coming in at just 0.8%.

Average rents in Whatcom County have also climbed sharply over recent years. The average rent of an apartment here rose to $1,311 in 2021, up from $1,223 in 2020 and $985 in 2018. While these figures reflect trends across all of Whatcom County, rents within Bellingham city limits have soared even higher.

Colburn concluded his presentation with a takeaway: to get out of this crisis, we need to add a lot more housing. The good news is there are strategies we can put to work here in Bellingham to do just that.

Addressing Bellingham’s Housing Deficit: Current Efforts & Room for Further Growth

Just like Colburn’s data would predict, Bellingham’s homelessness problem has increased as our local housing deficit has grown over recent years. But just how substantial is our housing deficit, and what steps can we take as a community to overcome it?

In its 2020 report on Housing Underproduction in Washington State, Up for Growth captured the scope of the statewide housing deficit:

“From 2000 to 2015, Washington state underproduced housing by approximately 225,600 units, or roughly 7.5% of the total 2015 housing stock. This underproduction has created a supply and demand imbalance that is reflected in the housing and homelessness crisis playing out in communities across the state.”

This deficit particularly impacted “missing middle” housing, such as duplexes, townhomes, and single-family homes affordable by median income earners. Here in Whatcom County, Up For Growth reports that between 2010 and 2017 only 0.65 housing units were built for every new household the county added.

Since 2010, the City of Bellingham estimates that the city’s population has increased by 11.4%, while the number of housing units in the city increased by only 9.7%. In its Housing FAQ, the city recognizes that approximately 600 additional units of housing need to be built each year to both stabilize vacancy rates and keep up with expected future growth. This target is a sizable step up from the average of 430 units that have been added each year over the past decade. Particularly noteworthy are the totals from 2009 and 2010, when Bellingham only added 77 and 72 housing units, respectively. Those years followed the housing crash in 2008, and, as discussed above, also came just before the significant rise is homelessness began.

In addition to the target for total new units, the city has also set a goal of increasing the area’s proportion of homes affordable by those earning the area’s median family income to 50%, up from the current 33%.

The City of Bellingham’s current strategy to meet these targets has been largely focused on increasing housing density through infilling. This approach means adding multi-family housing types like townhomes and condos in the city’s urban villages (such as Fairhaven & Barkley Village) as well as historic neighborhoods like Lettered Streets, Birchwood, Columbia, Sunnyland, and Happy Valley.

But the status quo approach of trying new ways to increase density will only take us so far. As shown, Bellingham’s housing deficit and homelessness have skyrocketed over the past 10 years despite increased densities. Continuing to increase potential building densities in the city can help, but recent history shows it is not enough. Another ready-made mechanism to add to Bellingham’s available housing stock is urban growth area reconfiguration.

One such area that the city should be working to designate as an urban growth area is the North Bellingham Urban Growth Area Reserve, which is located north of Cordata along the Guide Meridian. The area to the south is already home to Bellingham’s first green-built, solar community. City water and sewer lines are in place to serve the North Bellingham Urban Growth Area Reserve, and there is plenty of viable land to build well over a thousand homes that are both sustainable and affordable.

To tackle Bellingham’s housing deficit and the related rise in homelessness will require use of every available tool. Adding sustainable development to North Bellingham through annexation is a common-sense way for our community to do just that.

For Further Reading:

The City of Bellingham’s Housing FAQ:

The City of Bellingham’s “Why is housing so expensive in Bellingham?”:

The Washington Center for Real Estate Research’s Washington State Apartment Market Report – Fall 2021:

Up For Growth’s 2020 Report on Housing Underproduction in Washington State:

Homelessness is a Housing Problem: How Structural Factors Explain U.S. Patterns, by Gregg Colburn & Clayton Page Aldern:



Contact your Bellingham City Council representative and tell them you support a proactive plan for sustainable growth.

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