Since my December 30th, 2019 article about Homes NOW’s Unity Village petition for a permit extension, there have been a variety of developments in the process and communication between the City of Bellingham (COB) Planning Department, Fairhaven neighborhood residents and business owners, and HomesNOW.org. The non-profit Homes NOW has been circulating a petition to extend the permit end-date for the Unity Village temporary tiny home community. The village is located at 210 McKenzie Ave. on prime, desirable (sarcasm alert) real estate a block from the Post Point sewage treatment plant.
Homes NOW was asking for more time at the city-owned McKenzie Ave. site beyond the six-month permit period that ends April 30th, 2020. The language on the petition perhaps should have specified a permit extension requested end date (maybe July 31st or August 31st). As it now stands, Homes NOW must move the entire community of tiny homes, infrastructure, residents, and belongings during what will probably be very rainy, cold weather in April. More importantly, they need time to locate and secure a future site for Unity Village.
Homes NOW Board Chairman Doug Gustafson, along with Homes NOW volunteers, some Unity Village members, and residents of Fairhaven attended the Jan. 8th, 2020 Fairhaven Neighborhood Association (FNA) meeting. The FNA Board discussed extending the permit and neighbors voiced their comments. Doug Gustafson spoke, as did Bellingham Police Dept. Chief Doll and COB Planning Director Rick Sepler.
Many Fairhaven residents and a few business owners have been publicly supportive of Homes NOW and the Unity Village location. BPD Chief Doll has spoken out repeatedly in support of Homes NOW and the success of their two previous city-sanctioned tent camps and now Unity Village. Sadly, the roughly 5% of Fairhaven residents who are 100% opposed to homeless people visiting their exclusive, wealthy neighborhood seem to be in the vocal minority.
At last summer’s public meetings during the initial McKenzie Ave. permit review period, a number of the NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) Fairhaven residents spoke out loudly in opposition of homeless people living in their neighborhood. They made passionate statements like “Why does this homeless camp have to be located in Fairhaven? They could never afford to live here.” That may be true but, ironically, 60% of the current Unity Village residents were born and raised in Whatcom County, some in Bellingham and Fairhaven. Comments of this sort are, frankly, ignorant, hurtful, and disrespectful. A number of the Unity Village residents in attendance at the January 8th meeting were so bothered by some of the comments, they left the meeting early.
Planning Director Sepler spoke, saying that under the direction of the previous administration (former COB Mayor Kelli Linville), he was told specifically NOT to extend or amend permits for any of the Homes NOW sites. Sepler said the COB has to do what they said they were going to do; they can’t change the permits and there would be no extensions. Period. He went on to explain that if they were to extend now, nobody would be able to trust the COB to follow their word in the future. Hmmmmmm….really?
Doug Gustafson, Homes NOW Board Chairman, has provided me with multiple COB-produced documents regarding Unity Village [see below for links]. Two of the documents are the permit and a separate contract between the COB and Homes NOW. The contract details conditions and requirements for Homes NOW in the management of Unity Village. Another document is the Bellingham Municipal Codes Ordinance for tiny home communities. Although the ordinance for tiny home communities allows for up to two years at any one site, the permit was written with a hard cutoff of six months.
Another document outlines mandated behavior, required the signature of every resident of Unity Village. Unless all residents signed this third document, the entire Unity Village project could have been shut down at the discretion of the COB.
Gustafson also shared with me that the Homes NOW Board was led to believe that another temporary site could be available for the relocation of Unity Village. That may not actually be the case.
Sepler also mentioned that they are more open to the model of Quixote Communities based in Olympia, WA, where each tiny home has plumbing and is government-funded with paid staff. Unfortunately, you need to have between $500,000 to $2 million to spend, as well as the time to jump through all the legal, government, permit, construction, and other hoops. Meanwhile, it’s 19 degrees F in Bellingham with ice and snow on the ground. There are literally hundreds of people trying to live in cars or tents or doorways because there aren’t enough shelter or emergency cold weather beds. There are 300 homeless people on the Homes NOW waiting list.
I worked for a Seattle non-profit real estate developer in the 1990s. Along with mixed-use buildings in Pioneer Square, and a partnership with Catholic Community Services to build an affordable-housing semi-high-rise in Belltown, they also created the Winslow Cohousing Community project in 1992. This was only the second cohousing development funded and built in the U.S. I’ve also worked with architects and contractors over the past 30 years. So I know that installing plumbing infrastructure in each and every tiny home is not only inefficient, but the most expensive way to build-out a community of this nature. I would expect a planning director with even a modest amount of vision or understanding of community, or building construction efficiencies and economies of scale, to understand why plumbing is not needed in each tiny home for this type of community.
Even though there are a number of available city-owned sites where tiny home communities could be sited, Sepler said the city’s work in supporting the creation of tiny home communities is complete. He indicated that the COB is the only entity to have stepped up to assist Homes NOW and that their help was always meant to be temporary. He further emphasized the need for other agencies and individuals to help house homeless people going forward. He feels the city has already done what they could and now it’s time for others to do their part.
The planning director serves at the pleasure of the mayor. Whatever happened under the Linville administration has concluded. Now, as of January 1st, 2020, Mayor Seth Fleetwood has taken office. Has Sepler received Mayor Fleetwood’s full approval and authority to speak on behalf of the City of Bellingham? I don’t know.
I do know we now have an opportunity to change policy and keep people housed. Let’s re-group and grant Unity Village a few months extension so there is time to identify another suitable piece of property. Whatever property is selected, this should be a final, permanent move for Unity Village. That would be the most efficient and humane option to help our homeless neighbors.