The Battle for Bellingham’s Tiny Homes

By

[Douglas Gustafson guest writes. Doug is Chairman of HomesNOW! Not Later, an all-volunteer nonprofit organization operating in Bellingham and Whatcom County. HomesNOW operates Unity Village, the first tiny home community for homeless individuals in Bellingham. Doug is also a small business owner providing community IT support and has lived in Bellingham since 2006.]

HomesNOW currently manages Unity Village (20 homes soon to be 22) and Swift Haven (25 homes), the first two tiny home communities to exist in Bellingham. Our goal is to end homelessness, one person at a time. Swift Haven became operational in only two weeks because the county, city, and HomesNOW worked together where appropriate to accomplish a concrete and achievable goal, in a very short time, on a shoestring budget. It can be done again, if the city and county agree it’s important to move quickly and house more people. Using our approach, HomesNOW currently has around a 45% rehousing rate. Our transition to long-term housing rate is rising and we have no paid staff. Nearly 70 people have come through our program since we set up our first tent encampment, Winter Haven, in early 2019. Since moving exclusively to tiny homes, that number has continued to rise. 

A new tiny home village called Gardenview Village, which will house 30 - 50 people, is being established by the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) and Road2Home. They are set to open in late spring and will be the third tiny home village in Bellingham. Gardenview is estimating costs of somewhere between $500,000 - $1,000,000/year to operate. The main reason for these costs is 24/7 paid staff to act as case managers for individual residents (seven staff members to start). 

By contrast, villages managed by HomesNOW are resident managed, in other words, the people who live there are the ones who manage and run it. The tiny home villages managed by HomesNOW cost around $18,000/year to operate, with Unity Village incurring all those expenses, due to utility costs. Swift Haven costs nothing to operate because we do not pay the utilities at that site. Our resident-manager model allows individuals to maintain their autonomy and work together with other residents to improve everybody's situation. At the same time, we are reducing the number of tents seen around town as a result. 

At the last City of Bellingham Committee of the Whole meeting, Tara Sundin, the economic development manager for Bellingham, made the argument that tiny homes are shelter, not housing. The basic definition of housing is any shelter, lodging, or dwelling place, it’s a place where people live. A tiny home is basic, but also fits the definition of housing. Having your own unit, and privacy, is very different from sleeping at a congregate shelter in a big room with 150 people where you don't have your own space, no privacy, and you are required to vacate during certain parts of the day. This does not get people out of survival mode, no matter how “good” the shelter is. By contrast, tiny homes do get people out of survival mode, making it easier to move forward and get an enhanced quality of life. HomesNOW provides emergency housing, which is shelter, but it’s also transitional housing as long-term units become available.

Later in the meeting, City Council member Pinky Vargas commented that $1,000,000 for a temporary shelter for LIHI/Road2Home was a lot of money, and that the price tag for HomesNOW to set up Unity Village and Swift Haven was not anywhere near that amount. 

Planning Director Rick Sepler responded that Swift Haven cost around $200,000 to set up. He noted the provision of the tiny homes; site improvements, such as sewer and electrical; and in-kind work, such as that provided by city employees. Sepler was including the regular wages of public works employees in setting up the infrastructure for the site. However, these workers would have been paid whether they were doing this task or another task. The tiny houses themselves were paid for by Whatcom County, through emergency COVID funds, which means the city did not pay for the buildings. Interestingly, Sepler did not mention operational costs. HomesNOW Villages have zero operating costs, since we have residents acting as staff at our villages, and nobody at HomesNOW is paid. So, as HomesNOW scales up with more villages, there will not be any increased operational costs.

Sepler did mention that HomesNOW does not have on-site case management, but this is not necessarily the case. HomesNOW does not have 24/7 on-site case management employed by us, but when services or options are needed, case management is handled on-demand. This allows us to remain flexible in helping find services without micro-managing the lives of residents, overburdening the taxpayers, or inefficiently managing our time. It's simply easier and more efficient to have someone available on-demand, with regular visits as needed. It's practical to do it this way, because one case worker can handle multiple sites or help other agencies with the same services, thus increasing needed services while keeping costs low.

HomesNOW is laser-focused on housing, and yes, a tiny home is housing. An apartment complex is not expected to manage the mental health or social services of the tenants who live there. They are simply expected to provide a stable apartment complex where the tenants are not disrupting each other, the property, or the surrounding neighborhood. Services for mental health, addiction, domestic violence, and other areas, are very important, but those services always seem to be in short supply for both the housed and unhoused. We need to look at the picture from another angle: we have a dysfunctional and inadequate housing system, not dysfunctional and inadequate people.

Later in the meeting, council member Michael Lilliquist said that because of the intensive case management model implemented by LIHI, he was willing to sign off on the high cost. He implied that because HomesNOW does not have an intensive case management approach, people don't move on to long-term housing. This is simply not the case. Just to remind you, since we've been in operation with our first tent encampment in January of 2019, we've seen 70 people come through our program. Of those, 45% have found long-term housing, and that number is rising. 

Popular belief seems to be that moving people into so-called permanent housing is the best result for everyone. Yet, that may not always be the case. For example, let's say you're on disability or a fixed income of $700/mo. If you are able to obtain long-term, subsidized housing, HUD automatically charges 30% of that $700 for rent, in accordance with their definition of a fair rate. That leaves you $490. Then, you need to pay all bills, as well as all your expenses for food and any other necessities. This leaves you with very little money and, realistically, not enough to live on. In contrast, at a tiny home village, your monthly costs for housing and utilities might be near-zero, and suddenly that $700 goes a lot further than it did under the “goal” of so-called permanent housing. 

The community support found at a self-managed village environment, including regular donations of food, supplies, and other goods, helps connect residents with more opportunities over time. There is a sense of community and people helping each other achieve results. You don't typically have that in an apartment complex. Some people thrive in a community living situation, others would rather be alone in managing their affairs. Tiny home living is not an inferior level of housing, it's just different. It works well for some people, and not as well for others, depending on who they are. Sometimes, the proffered long-term housing is worse than living in a tiny home village. For example, being offered a long-term motel room in a high crime or high drug use area, might be a dangerous step down in standard of living compared to a tiny home village. Some of our past residents have been offered long-term housing that feels like a downgrade from their tiny home village. 

At a community meeting on Thursday, March 11th hosted by LIHI and Road2Home, Tara Sundin (economic development manager for COB), Melissa Bird (president of Road2Home), and representatives from LIHI answered questions. One attendee asked about the cost to set up Gardenview, the new tiny home village, and why LIHI had been selected as a partner, when the price tag was so high. Sundin responded that LIHI was selected because they had a paid staff model. Melissa Bird from Road2Home said a village could not be operated safely in the neighborhood without paid staff, and that $500,000 - $1,000,000 per year is what it costs to safely operate a shelter. She echoed similar statements made by Tara Sundin at the last Committee of the Whole meeting. 

I would argue that HomesNOW is currently operating two tiny home communities in Bellingham at a fraction of the cost, and that both locations are very safe. Swift Haven is in the same neighborhood Gardenview Village will be. We haven't needed paid staff to keep the villages safe. We know it works because it's already working. There's nothing inherently wrong with paid staff in a model that is different from HomesNOW, but I take issue with the assertion that a village won’t be safe without paid staff. Furthermore, if there are going to be more villages managed by LIHI/R2H in the future, the city will need to scale up financial capital to keep up with those financial requirements. That scaling-up will quickly become a drain on taxpayers, resulting in increased property and sales taxes, and an increase in rent prices, which in turn, will increase homelessness for more people in the long-run. And the cycle continues. By contrast, regardless of the number of villages that are set up by HomesNOW, operational costs remain near-zero.  

Later in the meeting, Debbie Chantrell, the lead community ally for Road2Home, said that in her experience, allowing residents to run their own village takes away their ability to focus on their own lives and prevents them from moving forward. She even asserted this was the reason for starting Road2Home. 

At HomesNOW villages, helping in a staff capacity is 100% volunteer; residents are not required to help. Those who volunteer find it helps them move forward faster. It's empowering to participate in running the place you live, rather than having an outside volunteer or staff member run things for you. Resident staff duties such as site-manager can also be included on a resume and help residents find meaningful work that moves them out of poverty. When villagers are part of the decision-making process, they gain a sense of ownership and a stake in the operations and policies of the village, which stabilizes the village further.

Chantrell mentioned that finding housing is a full-time job. Finding housing is a full-time job primarily because there's literally not enough units available for people who need housing. If you have 1000 people looking, and only 50 units available, then  it's a full time job. In that situation, you have to be on it every day, hoping you get one of those 50 units when there's a sea of people waiting for the same unit. We are basically rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. 

If there is not enough long-term housing for people—which the city and other agencies have admitted for years—then it doesn't matter how intensive the case work is; there's simply not enough housing units available for people, and it's not their fault. Every year, we are told that enough units will come online in the next year or two, but it never seems to materialize fast enough. Until a whole bunch of affordable housing units become available, ones far below current market rate, then something deemed a temporary option, such as a tiny home village, ends up being a more long-term solution. 

Many of the core group from Road2Home previously volunteered extensively with HomesNOW. Shortly after the construction of Unity Village, there were serious disagreements about which direction to take the organization. The biggest divisions were about how we managed things at HomesNOW. Were we making life too comfortable at the village? Should we be doing a paid-staff-model? Should we take government money? These issues caused a split between some of the volunteers, and we ended up going our separate ways. Road2Home has subsequently linked up with LIHI, a very large organization, which is the equivalent of "big business" for homeless shelters. LIHI currently manages over 2300 housing units and around 13 tiny home villages. In the meeting, they said they plan to open six more villages within the next six months. LIHI also owns millions of dollars of real-estate.

While LIHI is technically classified as a non-profit, there are individuals who profit greatly from operating it. Sharon Lee, LIHI's executive director, makes over $200,000/year. That one person’s salary is enough to construct two of their tiny home villages per year.

 So while not technically classified as a business, it is understandable if people perceive it as such. A problem with many nonprofits is that too much of their funding goes to paid staff, and not toward the actual mission.

In the meeting, Theresa Hohman, the tiny house program manager from LIHI, echoed issues that Chantrell and Bird had mentioned about how people at the village get too comfortable with a resident managed approach. She identified issues that can arise, things like abuse of power, inequity within the village, favoritism toward certain individuals, and individuals being evicted unfairly.   

I agree that issues involving abuse of power, inequity, and favoritism can occur in any organization, regardless of whether it’s an employment situation or a tiny home village, whether you have paid staff, volunteer staff, or resident staff. Just because somebody is paid, does not mean they are immune to those issues. There are similar scenarios at the workplace, in politics, and within legal policy-making. But it can be prevented through adequate checks and balances, and making sure there are open lines of communication between everyone, so that nobody is in a position to abuse their authority. Checks and balances are the reason we employ policies like having at least three resident managers of equal standing at each site, as well as ensuring major decisions are made by a majority vote of the whole village. We have found it works quite well. Villages can also vote to change the resident managers, which has occurred in the past with HomesNOW. Having the village make decisions as a whole gives everyone a stake in the outcome of their village and how it operates; this empowers everyone who lives there. That would definitely make me feel more comfortable if I were a resident.

After being on the streets, in a deeply uncomfortable situation, what is wrong with feeling comfortable in your own home? What's wrong with comfort? Why do we need to go out of our way to make life more difficult for people who have already been through so much? Is it just because we're trying to make them move along faster? Why can't they move at the pace that's right for them?

Our ability to scale up with more villages quickly is only limited by having land available and residents from previous villages who want to help manage new sites. When people finally find long-term housing, they need to be independent and be able to work with others in the overall community. This is the atmosphere we have, and promote, at Unity Village and Swift Haven. We are open to the public and welcome any individual or agency who wants to check us out, visit, and/or help residents where needed. 

As with all organizations, issues pop up from time to time, but we've always been able to deal with them, move forward, and get stronger as an organization. We're ready to move quickly to set up additional villages. We are trying to get more people housed as quickly as possible and increase the standard of living as much as possible without being a drain on taxpayers. Let's work together to make that happen fast, so even more progress can be made on this vital issue

About Guest Writer

Citizen Journalist • Member since Jun 15, 2008

Since 2008, this moniker has been used over 130 times on articles written by guest writers who may write once or very occasionally for Northwest Citizen, but not regularly.

Comments by Readers

Joseph Wilson

Mar 20, 2021

The Homes Now model is great solution for many, but as you say, it is not the solution for everyone. I believe you have a good model for a subset of the homeless community. My only concern with the Homes Now organization is that the leadership spends an inordinate amount of time putting down other groups in the community who are also doing their best to provide safe shelter. You state your goal is to end homelessness one person at a time. Battling with others who also endorse that goal doesn’t seem productive.  It would be nice if you simply focused on doing the best you can, and spend less time complaining about others who also provide great solutions for a different subset of the homeless community.

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Michael Chiavario

Mar 20, 2021

Beautiful piece Doug. You have my 100% spport with the Homes Now model. Now we continue the struggle to create emough permanently affrodable homes for every persons need in Bellingham.

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Douglas Gustafson

Mar 20, 2021

Joseph Wilson, we have not been putting down other groups. It’s important for the community to be able to see contrasts between different groups right? The neighborhood and community in general was confused about what the difference is between the tiny home models in Bellingham and the organizations involved and what those models entail. 

We are always doing the best we can, and we’re ready to do more. 

If another model that has the same goal is using up way more money to achieve that goal, and to where it might result in the need to increase taxes, wouldn’t that have an effect on the end-goal being somewhat compromised? 

Here’s the video I did (that this article was based on), in which I simply responded to clips from Committee of the Whole meetings and LIHI’s public meeting for the community. Happy to always answer any questions or concerns. 

https://youtu.be/0smaXscM8ME

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hilary cole

Mar 20, 2021

Thank you Doug for the beautiful summary.  My main concern is fairness. The 1.5 Million$ Gardenview cost could be better spent creating many more low-cost HomesNow vllages, picking-up the hundreds and hundreds of homeless people now being swept.
Meanwhile, HomesNow’s Swift Haven, which has huge community support, is being shunted-off beyond city limits in the spring. How fair is this?

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Douglas Gustafson

Mar 20, 2021

Hilary Cole, yes my main argument is not to trash anybody or anything. But just trying to make the case that we can offer an incredible bang-for-buck ratio compared to more traditional models. 

I think Gardenview and LIHI’s model falls into a more orthodox mindset, so if you have been a city planner for decades or you’re used to things being a certain way, it might very well look more viable to you if you were sitting in that chair, and I don’t blame them for it, even though I disagree. 

But all I ask is that the community and the local governments take a look at what we’ve been able to do in a short period of time on a shoestring budget, and to simply look at the results and judge for themselves. 

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Roberta G Hochreiter

Mar 20, 2021

Doug,

Thank you for the information. I would much prefer our tax dollars and community efforts be used to support your model of tiny home villages. I love that you empower the people so that they learn valuable skills as they work their way back into the community. I don’t think throwing lots of money at a situation really does much good. I worry that the residents in that situaiton will just be “taken care of” by people who don’t understand truly what it means and feels like to be homeless and powerless. Your system is like teaching them to fish instead of just giving them fish.

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Tip Johnson

Mar 20, 2021

 No doubt some require or could benefit from a highly managed housing situation but I agree with the author that most will better build their transitional capacity through direct involvement in managing their own community.

As for the abuse some fear might occur in autonomous village structures, I have little faith that similar or worse abuse can’t proceed from more exteriorly managed settings.

The main difference between the two models seems to be jobs - good paying ones from the sound of it.  If we are going to focus on job creation, it would be nice to put some effort toward creating jobs for the folks that need these facilities.  Some income might help them transition into permanent housing faster than anything.

Of course, as the author point out, there has to be something available. 

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Jane Bright

Mar 21, 2021

Thank you. Yes, experiencing self-sufficiency in a tiny home community is valuable on numerous levels, especially as preperation to transition to independent living. I applaud you and HomesNow for your work and accomplishments.

In addition, we need services and shelter for those too ill to care for themselves.

The Mar 20 Seattle Times article Washington state’s rise in homelessness outpaced the nation’s, according to report explains. Note that this report tracks homelessness before the pandemic:

“But the report also showed that Washington was far from alone in grappling with one of the most devastating and difficult kinds of homelessness to alleviate: chronic homelessness, defined as frequent or extended bouts of homelessness experienced by people with a disability. People who fall into this category often struggle with mental health or addiction issues that make them unable to stay in housing without intense treatment or other supports. Nationwide, 15% more chronically homeless people were counted that year, driven by increased numbers of people living outside.”

The article adds:

“Washington, for example, saw a 20% increase in family homelessness between 2019 and 2020, one of the biggest nationwide, while at the same time the number of people in unsheltered families — meaning those living in places not designed for human habitation — grew across the country.”

The homeless population is complex, including people who work full time, and the causes started decades ago. Multiple types of housing and services are needed.

The question is, what’s the right mix and best use of scarce resources? Thank you Doug for getting us to think about that.

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Tim Surratt

Mar 22, 2021

This is a very good and balanced article.  The Homes Now model is a great success.  I fail to see why the City of Bellingham cannot accept that fact.  The current actions regarding homeless encampments demonstrate to me that the city is unable, perhaps unwilling, to look for real, cost-effective solutions.  Residents from Unity Village have spoken at the Echoes fellowship and I was struck by their sense of both personal ownership for the Village and sense of personal responsibility for each other.  No number of paid staff can build that.  Enabling people to have a modicum of control over their own lives builds their self-respect and confidence.  If the city funded Homes Now with 10-20% of their proposed project, just imagine what they could do.

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Karen Steen

Mar 22, 2021

The tiny home villages of Homes NOW! Not Later serve a self-selective subset of unhoused people in our community. The $10M public support for housing and shelter programs provided by COB/Whatcom County serve the full spectrum of unhoused people, including families, youths, disabled, mentally ill, alcoholics, drug addicts, and individuals who chose to live unhoused. Many, if not  most, unhoused people in our community do not meet the criteria for the Homes NOW! Not Later villages. I understand from COB Council and Council Committee meetings that Gardenview Village will provide tiny homes for unhoused people needing onsite supervision and services for health, safety and behavioral conditions beyond what Homes NOW! villages can accept or provide. 

It behooves citizens of every community impacted by unhoused people living unsheltered to learn about the spectrum and demographics of homelessness - regionally and in our local community - from public sources so as to discern and support cost-effective remedial measures. The Whatcom County Health Department, City of Bellingham and Whatcom County Administrations are working with the best facts and regional public experiences available. We owe it to ourselves and elected officials to familiarize ourselves about the spectrum of homelessness to support informed, cost-effective responses to this broad, deep and complex problem. Least we can do is not criticize the best efforts of elected officials if we haven’t educated ourselves about the problems and attendant public responsibilities.

YouTube offers a growing number of independent and public documentaries about unhoused Americans, especially in west coast cities. COB offers basic public information and a summary about current program responses to our local crisis at

Homelessness FAQ for Winter 2021. Bellingham City Council and Council Committee meetings that deliberate and decide responses to our housing and services crisis are all available live stream and on-demand at COB.org - Council Meetings. More than ever, our beleaguered elected officials need our well-informed citizen participation and/or support for their well-informed best efforts.

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hilary cole

Mar 22, 2021

Hmmmm…to Karen Steen, Are you saying Doug doesn’t know about the “spectrum and demographics of homelessness”? Say what? I could name 30-50 Ph.D’s in Homelessness that have been working tirelessly over the years with people from all backgrounds, mental states and behavior. Eons ago I lived for 9 1/2 years with thousands of ex-heroin addicts and ex-alkies in a world-famous rehab, turned intentional community, turned cult- I left before it blew-up, 10 years later.  Lawyers, doctors, teachers, millionairs also lived there, too.  Addicts just kicked drugs cold-turkey.  So I know know a little about addicts and have hung-out with people from all economic levels, all walks of life.

My participation on this issue is presenting information to elected officials  stuff they might not have been aware of, providing another point of view of where to put public funds and concern about fairness between HN and GV.

I like Tip Johnson’s idea of paying ex-homeless people who know the ropes, rather than high-salaried professionals who may not have a clue.

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Karen Steen

Mar 23, 2021

hilary cole - That’s your perspective and opinion - Doug has his, I have mine, etc.

My earlier post offered only my perspective, understanding, and information resources. A democratically governed community depends for its well-being on well-informed citizens and respect for our social contract and system of governance. I would prefer to have direct democracy that implements block-chain voting about local issues, which we may see in the eventual future. Progressively, our WA state legislature came very close this session to voting on ranked choice voting for local elections - hopefully with the continued support of citizen advocacy groups RCV-WA, Fix Democracy First, and LWV-WA, ranked choice voting will be considered and voted on next year.

Currently, a winner-take-all representative democracy is the community governance we have. Whether representative or direct democracy, the quality of our community life depends on: well-informed citizens who bring their individual perspectives and opinions into civil dialogue; peaceful advocacy; and respect for our governance process, honest well-intended elected representatives, and good-faith decisions.

Please note that I’ve only referred to you and Doug with respectful acknowledgment of your perspectives and opinions, which I extend to all acting in good faith in the context of our civil codes that especially protect the most vulnerable in society.

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Angelo Tsoukalas

Mar 24, 2021

That’s a great article, well written and makes me very happy that I have supported HomesNow and will continue to do so. Thank you Doug. Let’s think economics - if HomesNow operates on a string and community supported budget then we can obviously have many more tiny homes which means more people helped. Awesome! On the other hand if we have million dollar big orgs and local government that don’t provide feedback to taxpayers but want them to foot the bill; how many homeless will they really help? It doesn’t sound very promising. It’s this kind of spending/taxing without representation that turns happy liberal Democrats into conservative - oh my God - Republicans! LoL. And they will cut all this fancy funding apart. Nevertheless there are those that are not accepted into Homesnow. However as this cheap and very effective solution becomes more available, there will obviously be less and less people left out. Could those left be the ones with the real mental and/or serious drug addiction problems? I would think so. I would say a model like Rhode island is providing can serve those leftover. If it works for them, why would it not work for us here in Bellingham?

Here are 2 documentaries that talk about problems in Seattle and how the Rhode island model can really help those leftover. 

Here’s the first video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bpAi70WWBlw&t=4s and here’s the 2nd one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WijoL3Hy_Bw These are awesome documentaries well worth watching.

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Amanda Fleming

Mar 24, 2021

The iHomesNow model does not cover the entire spectrum of the homeless population.  Doug makes no mention in this article of the fact that the residents of the tiny home villages operated by HomesNow are carefully screened to make sure they can fit into this situation, are required to follow a number of rules, and are expelled if they do not follow those rules.  So HomesNow would appear to be a good alternative for the portion of the homeless population who are able to do all of the above.  What of all those who cannot meet those criteria or follow those rules, whose issues render them unable to self govern, or to cooperate with others who are attempting a self-governance model?  There are many such homeless who would benefit from a LIHI model with 24/7 paid staff to act as case managers for individual residents, staff members who are trained to deal with mental health and addiction models, which HomesNow volunteers and residents are not. Shelters which allow these types of residents, without 24/7 trained staff, would indeed be dangerous to surrounding neighborhoods.

Also, Doug and others appear to be aghast at the price tag for the LIHI shelter. Yet we are constantly told that it would be cheaper just to “give them” (the homeless) housing.  Yet as Doug himself points out, there isn’t enough housing.  Even if there were, many people with mental health and drug problems are unlikely to be able to stay in that housing because of their issues, which would make everyone around them miserable and cause them to be evicted.  So, there is a large spectrum of the homesless that the HomesNow model cannot serve.  And the part about “issues that can arise, things like abuse of power, inequity within the village, favoritism toward certain individuals, and individuals being evicted unfairly”?  It seems I read that all of those issues were occurring at HomesNow when Jim Peterson was in charge, and involved some board members and residents.  Paid and trained staff would at leat have more accountability.  In summary, this article ignores the fact that many of the homeless currently living in Bellingham will not fit into the HomesNow model, because they need more intensive supervision and management than HomesNow can provide. 

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Karen Steen

Mar 24, 2021

Thank you Angelo and Amanda for the information, resources and perspectives you’ve offered here. The Seattle documentaries are very good and pertinent to Bellingham’s chronically unsheltered population, i.e. those unhoused people who are either unable or unwilling to comply with requirements of public shelter and housing. I understand from the COB Public Health, Safety, and Justice Committee and the Whatcom County Public Health Department that this chronically unsheltered population need “wrap-around services” for their own and community safety and health. I understand LIHI offers at least some of these wrap-around services.

There are two additonal realities not previously noted in this article and reader comments, substantial realities that COB must address in providing services to chronically unsheltered people. First, the City has legal liability for the health and safety of our housed citizens AND public programs for unhoused people; and the City’s legal liabilities are ultimately the city taxpayers’ liabilities. Second, for countless years now, Whatcom County has had a critical shortage of mental health and social work providers; it has long been a heart-breaking struggle for Whatcom County residents to obtain mental health and case management services for themselves and family members. I understand LIHI provides these licensed services with the housing management that COB has contracted with them, thereby providing licensed services needed for public health/safety and legal responsibility that are simply not available in our County.

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hilary cole

Mar 25, 2021

It is my understanding Gardenview was NOT billed as a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest-type psych ward, with bars on the windows and locked gates. And as far as I know, there is one case worker with 6-7 mostly full-time watchers, who are hired to look over, 24/7, the 30 Gardenview residents ONLY. So Gardenview is not adding a huge social worker benefit to the thousands of homeless on the outside.

My concerns are:

1. Fairness to HomesNow in terms of the massive infrastructure upgrades that Gardenview will get.- bigger, better tiny homes, new trailers for the kitchen, dining, meeting, computer use, bath houses, flush toilets, etc…, a prettier scenic site….

2. The public did not know the details of the Gardenview project until the webinar 2 weeks ago, and we were given ONLY 1 week to do our research and respond.  I only heard about the Gardenview 2 million dollar build-out and operational costs at the Committee of the Whole meeting that a friend gave me the zoom code for, which I’m sure not many citizens are aware of.  And even now we still do not know who specifically the Gardenview project will serve, the projected rehousing rate, and what checks and balances will be in place. The details of negotiations with the organization, LIHI, that owns and manages millions of dollars of real estate, was not made public..  At the Webinar, we were told not to talk about the application, but only ask questions about the presented information- in this way, the conversation was unfairly controlled and censored. As it was, there was not enough time alloted to get the questions of those waiting in queue to be heard….
 
 3. If the residents are so ‘medically fragile’, the ‘tough cases’, ‘the ones who cannot care for themselves’-how will they graduate, transition to regular housing? Will Gardenview become a semi-permanent assisted-living facility? When I called around, there were very few beds in long-term nursing facilities for homeless Medicaid patients. I thought Gardenview was billed as transitory housing…

Just a few of my questions….




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Karen Steen

Mar 26, 2021

For many years now, COB has made all City Council and Council Committee meetings publicly available by live stream on BTV Live and on-demand viewing at City of Bellingham Meetings. Committee of the Whole and Public Health, Safety, and Justice Committee meetings have been especially pertinent these recent months to matters of homeless people and housing programs.

Since last November, the COB website posts regular updates about decisions and coordination with Whatcom County for housing programs as follows:

Included on the Homeless FAQ’s page is the “request for qualifications for a qualified partner agency” that was the basis for COB deciding to partner with LIHI/R2H for Gardenview Village.

Mayor Fleetwood briefly addressed the LIHI/R2H agency selection and Gardenview Village at the recent Mayors Neighborhood Advisory Commission (MNAC) meeting.  MNAC meetings are publicly observable live using the Zoom link in their MNAC monthly agendas on the COB MNAC web page . BTW I regard MNAC as the least democratic structure in COB governance, but that’s a separate matter that warrants serious future public consideration.

I haven’t agreed with much of Mayor Fleetwood’s decisions these recent months; I can’t imagine circumstances where I would suspend city ordinances that protect public health and safety for 90,000 citizens. I see that most Council Members have missed opportunities to be transparent, forthcoming, and build trust with their constituents. And City Hall collectively failed to educate the public in timely ways about analysis, options and constraints in response to the sustained frontal assault by illegal protests on our public commons and democratic governance.

Still, these were unprecedented rapid developments in the context of winter weather and an historic pandemic. I don’t know details of COB’s legal accountability to the welfare of its 90,000 constituents, but I’m certain our elected representatives are neither paid nor objectively rewarded commensurate with their responsibility. And I expect they have all learned a lot about effective emergency city governance.

I won’t presume to micromanage a well-intended and capable body of elected representatives as I consider Mayor Fleetwood and Council Members. They decided their best in the face of multiple simultaneous crises that collectively affect 90,000 Bellingham residents. I consider it a substantial accomplishment by City Hall that their decisions effectively addressed many component crises, didn’t escalate several negative developments that were potentially catastrophic, and made progressive programmatic decisions that may be effective for the greatest good of Bellingham residents.

Finally, thank you to Mr. Gustafson for your community work and article here, and to all commenters for a good discussion.

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hilary cole

Mar 27, 2021

As far as I know, it was the Planning Dept, unelected workers that arranged for the contract with LIHI, prompted by R2H with the Council approving the funding. I sense the general consensus was that homeless people are out-of-control, wild, a threat to middle-class life, so they need 24/7 supervision, parenting, and management.

As a participant in democracy, I see no problem with pushing back on an administrative decision using one of the few tools citizens have- social media, especially since the 3min speech per person, for a total of only 15min at Council meetings, was implimented.

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Karen Steen

Mar 27, 2021

hilary cole - 

Nearly all verifiable COB and public testimony, written reports, and documentation concur that public heath and safety are priority  concerns, including a priority for the health and safety of unsheltered people.

Everyone of the public who sign up or raise their Zoom hand for public comment in Council Meetings get up to 3 min. each for comment within reasonable guidelines for civil comments. The meeting structure provides for 15 minutes initial public comment, then scheduled agenda procedings, then back to public comment for however long needed for commenters. These recent months especially, twice monthly Council Meetings have exceeded 2 - 3+ hours length to include all reasonably civil public comments.

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hilary cole

Mar 28, 2021

Karen Steen- There are no longer an oral public comment period after scheduled agenda proceedings. “Health and safety concerns” is such a broad comment, it is meaningess in this context.  What about the health and safety of homeless people who cannot get shelter because all the funds are going to Gardenview?

 

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Behnoosh Armani

Mar 28, 2021

Ms. Karen Steen, as I am reading most of your responses here I am wondering if you work for the COB or are you good friends with someone at LIHI or R2H! What is your intention here? How do you define chronically unsheltered? You seem to make a lot of assumptions about guidelines for city & county meetings but in reality your understanding is not factual. I have been present at all of the meetings for the past six months and I must admit that when the city was presenting about GV plans, they ommitted several key facts. As Ms. Cole mentioned above, there was a 15 minutes Q & A and only four people got to ask questions. The public was asked to send in their comments. It appears that the city does not want the public to be aware of many things in relation to this organization setting up in B’ham. If LIHI is not going to start up until May, then why can’t they set up a townhall type of a meeting and allow folks to ask all of their questions. People seem to be suspicious about the way the city handled that whole meeting.

I would like to inform you that LIHI is planning a camp of 30 to 35 folks ages 55 and above who are medically fragile/disabled. In the city meeting it was explained that this camp will house seven staff members including a special project manager, a site manager, a case manager, security and operational support staff and village organizers. I’m not 100% sure if they will have one or more case managers. For a camp of that size with all of the bells and whistles that will be provided, the cost of $1 million seems to be very steep. Wouldn’t it make more sense for this special population to live at a similar camp that would provide social workers and case managers who would visit a few times a month to assist the residents? Why do they need to have seven staff working around the clock? On top of being homeless and having nothing to their name the residents are expected to pay rent. If they happen to miss their rent payment, they get evicted along with a hefty penalty and their record gets dinged for lack of rent payment so they lose eligibility and credibility and will not be able to rent again. When LIHI, a wealthy company who’s getting the red carpet thrown at their feet with everything being paid for by the city and county plus grants, they charge their residents rent and get to pocket that money. To me, that’s a shady way of doing business and it appears to be a lose-lose for all of us. A multi-million dollar company coming in to town, paying no taxes, collecting lots of money and then taking that money out of our city so they could buy more real estate - I’m still scratching my head that our city hasn’t done their homework researching this company and their track record. In addition, there was no SEPA (State Environmental Policy Act) study done either.

So, let’s go over this one more time - now, I am going to call LIHI Walmart - if you remember when Walmart first started out in the country - they destroyed all of the small family owned neighborhood stores by putting them out of business; then paid and continue to pay their workers minimum wage, abuse their employees; pay no taxes or very little; their employees stay poor; and they do nothing for the community. Isn’t LIHI’s model very similar to Walmart?

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Karen Steen

Mar 28, 2021

hilary cole - When a Council Meeting includes a scheduled public hearing, that item has a designated public comment period.

Behnoosh Armani - I know noone at LIHI, nor R2H, nor am I affiliated in any way with COB beyond being a well-informed citizen by reading public information and attending COB and County Council meetings. I’m a retired career RN, including a decade working in community and public health clinics, and I’ve been an active citizen community advocate all my life. My intention here is to provide accurate information and a well-informed perspective. Everything I’ve said here can be verified in public records.

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hilary cole

Mar 29, 2021

Dear Ms Steen, I knew you were a retired nurse, astrologer (very cool!) and have a business.  However, we are also well-informed about Council meetings, public comment periods, and the way the govt runs.  You still did not address specific concerns that were brought up in the main post and subsequent comments….

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Nicholas Sotak

Mar 29, 2021

I’m in a listening mode right now.  I also happen to live less than a quarter mile from the proposed tiny home village.  I was not able to make the public meetings, but have tried to read what I can.

 

Behnoosh Armani makes some very concerning claims, especially the portion about residents paying rent.  Behnoosh, can you or anyone verify or provide official sources that substantiate these claims?  It would be really helpful if the city released some sort of document that outlines, in simple terms, how this village will be operated, where money is coming from, where money is going, and the general plans and terms of the agreement.

 

Frankly, I’m not sure what to think of this village.  Not long ago the site was proposed to be the new location for Unity Village when their permit was coming to an end.  The new proposal sounds quite a bit different, but my concerns and many of my neighbors’ concerns are unchanged.  Of course, whether founded or unfounded, people worry about safety.  Concerns around access to resources and transportation are also present.  This area is on a bus line to downtown, which is good.  It is not the easiest to reach on foot or bike, however.  The hills are significant and Woburn and Lakeway are not the most friendly roads.  The village will exist within the ‘walkshed’ of Kulshan Middle School.  The only designated sidewalk that accesses a marked crossing of Woburn St. from the adjacent neighborhood travels next to the proposed site.  How comfortable will parents be having their children walk to and from school in this area?  A lot of kids brave the unmarked crossing on Woburn St. already, maybe more will now.  The city has no plans to add markings to the crosswalk that would allow people to access the bus stop, cemetery, and primary sidewalk on Woburn St. more directly.

The descriptions for the type of individuals who will be residents at this village are diverse.  It makes me concerned that residents who need 24 hour case support and security will be living in this area.  Campers have been living in the woods nearby consistently for over the past year, none of whom are “screened” so I can’t say my housed neighbors aren’t already interacting with individuals who may be unstable and potentially dangerous.  So, another village is unlikely to change much except the frequency of interactions.

To this day I have not had a single negative interaction with a camper or village (Swift Haven) resident.  I know this can’t be said for everybody, especially when camp 210 was here.  I use the trails in the area multiple times a day and have a small child at home.  My wife uses the trails multiple times a day and can report the same experience.  The biggest issue I can see right now is the lack of sanitation around current and former camp sites, and this concerns me for both the safety of people passing through, those living at the sites, and our environment.

I hope this new village will be easy to integrate into our community. 

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Douglas Gustafson

Mar 29, 2021

Nicholas Sotak, I think that Benhoosh is referring to some of LIHI’s other projects (such as full apartments). I am not sure if rent is charged for villagers though, I have not heard either way on that part, but I think this article shows some more info on it. Not only were people evicted for not paying rent, but they were taken to court over it, at a surprisingly high rate compared to other providers. Having any eviction on somebody’s record makes it very hard to find housing later.

https://www.seattlemag.com/news-and-features/local-report-reveals-surprisingly-high-eviction-rate-one-seattle-nonprofit

This village might be different though, I’d like to see clarification on it also. To some extent it’s kind of frustrating, because as HomesNOW we make sure the public is informed about everything that we’re doing, sometimes almost to the point of too much information. We operate in the daylight and not behind closed doors. We’re not perfect either, but at least you know what you’re getting, and the results speak for themselves. 


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Tim Paxton

Apr 03, 2021

Does anyone ever survey these homeless to see how long they have lived in Whatcom County?  Are they raised here or just arrived? 

I wonder sometimes how many cities are just putting their homeless on a Bolt or Greyhound one way  ticket to elsewhere, i.e. Bellingham.

When word gets out on the internet about all of these minihouses being available, How soon will caravans of hopefuls arrive at our doorsteps to demand their house? 

Does an open border policy for immigrants across the southern border,  who are happy to work for whatever salary, help the exisitnig homeless population find well paying jobs? 

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Behnoosh Armani

Apr 30, 2021

Tim Paxton, have you ever lived on the streets? Do you think that life is rosey for the homeless folks in B’ham/Whatcom County? Do we have better weather than CA, FL, AZ, etc.? Most folks that I have spoken with at the camps either grew up or have lived in the area. They have family and/or friends here. It’s a myth that people are put on busses and told to come up here. Just go out in town every Wednesday when they get swept and lose their belongings week after week and then tell us how lovely it is to live here unhoused!

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