With a total of only about fifty properties listed in its MLS, and just twenty within Bellingham city limits, the 850-member Whatcom County Association of REALTORS® (WCAR) is all-too-keenly aware of the need for increased housing solutions in its northwestern corner of Washington state. To help spur local housing action, the REALTORS® are supporting an engaging ‘Bellingham for Everyone’ campaign with a Housing Opportunity Grant from the REALTOR® Party.
Perry Eskridge, WCAR’s Executive Director, notes that the key to tapping into the REALTOR® Party resources was having a strong partner in Sustainable Connections, a non-profit focused on building strong communities in the region. The REALTORS® have worked closely with the organization as fellow members of the Whatcom Housing Alliance, and Rose Lathrop, Sustainable Connections’ Program Director, was already familiar with several of the REALTOR® Party’s grant programs. “Rose offered to write the proposal for a grant to support the Bellingham for Everyone campaign, which sealed the deal,” says Eskridge, explaining, “As I am 50% Government Affairs Director and 50% Executive Director, with a part-time Membership Director, it’s not always possible to stretch to further tasks, no matter how worthwhile and aligned with our priorities.”
In turn, Lathrop credits the National Association of REALTORS® as being on the cutting edge of the Placemaking movement. “NAR is recognizing the housing affordability crisis across the nation and prioritizing it in its grant-giving,” she says. In Bellingham, she adds, the dire need for affordable workforce housing is ramping up, and homelessness is on the rise, so people are asking more urgently, ‘What are the barriers? What are the urban growth boundaries? Why can’t we find vacant land in the city?’ These are questions that the REALTORS® are addressing on a national level, says Lathrop, and “their support is making a big difference to those of us at the grassroots level.”
The Bellingham for Everyone campaign set out to mobilize the community to encourage regional housing policies that will bring about diverse housing and increased affordability. With the grant funding, it was able to raise brand recognition and grow its support base by 200 individuals; gain a substantial following on social media; create print and virtual marketing materials; conduct a series of free virtual public education events with topics such as ‘Zoning 101’ and ‘The Housing Continuum’; create Neighborhood Welcome Packets with interactive activities and a values-based ad campaign with an upbeat, positive focus. As Eskridge explains, the goal has been to provide education and to combat any prevailing NIMBY-ism by re-framing the infill-housing discussion with a more forward-looking, optimistic tone. “Though everyone’s talking about wanting the richness that diversity brings, Bellingham is, frankly, a monochromatic town. We’re trying to demonstrate that this is not just about what housing looks like; the simple fact is, if we don’t have affordable housing, we’ll never achieve that diversity and all the benefits it brings.” By educating its base, he says, the Whatcom Housing Alliance is ensuring that the conversation isn’t dominated by a resistant NIMBY element, and that those in favor of increased and equitable housing opportunities can speak up and address specific barriers with an informed voice.
Lathrop proudly reports that the campaign is already having a positive effect on local housing policy: both the Bellingham City Council and the Whatcom County Council are now considering a new one-tenth of 1% sales tax to benefits affordable housing projects, and the city is looking at a comprehensive re-zoning in favor of a multi-family density increase. “We know that the swell of support and engagement of community members we’ve reached through the campaign is driving the difference. That growth in numbers of allies and the growing range of neighborhoods represented is our best metric of success.”
To learn more about how the Whatcom County Association of REALTORS® is working to build an equitable future for the Bellingham, Washington region, starting with ample affordable housing, visit https://whatcomhousingalliance.org/projects/bellingham-for-everyone/ or contact Rose Lathrop, Program Director of Sustainable Connections, at Rose@SustainableConnections.org or 360.647.7093 x107.