by Giovanni Roverso
The Samish Way urban village redevelopment project at the site of the former Aloha Motel, condemned in September 2015, will likely not be breaking ground until late spring or early summer in 2019, according to the Bellingham Housing Authority. It was supposed to break ground in 2018 according to the city of Bellingham website.
The Samish Way project is one of the latest housing projects in Bellingham aiming to address record low-housing vacancy rates in Whatcom County. The rate sits near 1 percent according to the Whatcom County Coalition to End Homelessness 2018 Annual Report.
As of January 2018, 815 people were homeless in Whatcom County, according to the above-mentioned report, with hundreds more at risk of losing their homes due to economic reasons, domestic violence, family break up, loss of employment or mental illness.
The Bellingham Housing Authority has been in charge of the redevelopment project since it purchased the property from the city of Bellingham for $1.83 million in April 2017, according to the COB website.
A Troubled Past
The Aloha Motel and some other motels on what used to be U.S. Highway 99 had gained notoriety as hotbeds for crime.
Brien Thane has been the new executive director of the Bellingham and Whatcom County Housing Authorities since July 2018.
“Towards the end there, the Aloha simply was unmanaged,” Thane said. “They were clearly renting to very sketchy characters, and, as a mix of people who were really down on their luck and that was all they could afford, as well as some people who were too messed up in crime and drugs […], it was very sad to see.”
In the Aloha Motel’s last year, the Bellingham Police Department filed 140 incident reports occurring there compared to 104 during the previous 12 months, according to police data.
Representatives from the Samish and York neighborhoods pushed the city to condemn the motel after a death at the motel in 2013, which shocked members like Anne Mackie in the York neighborhood association into action.
They reached out to the city, church groups and social service organizations as well as local businesses. Mackie was on-site as a citizen observer in partnership with the Opportunity Council when the Aloha was vacated and its residents were relocated.
Mackie said WWU students came up with the urban neighborhood concept to help regenerate neighborhoods like Samish and York. There are about five or six such urban villages now. About a decade ago, Allen Matsumoto, former Sehome Neighborhood Association president and later a volunteer appointee to the city Planning Commission, helped develop the criteria for the urban village model.
Since the Aloha was shut down, crime in the York neighborhood has visibly decreased, Mackie said. The former Franklin Park, now Harriet Spanel Park, has vastly improved in terms of atmosphere, she said. The park was named after the former state Senator and Samish Neighborhood Association board president who also worked on getting the Aloha shut down.
The park on the corner of Whatcom and Grant streets, roughly between Ellis Street, Lakeway Drive and U.S. Interstate 5, and a 7-minute walk north from Aloha, had been suffering from an overflow of drug-related activity, Mackie said, and she remembered an overdose occurring there.
Aloha, like Macs Motel on Maple Street, which shut down in 2016, was in violation of its license by renting out long-term residences. Eventually, several health citations relating to methamphetamines being found in the walls of rooms, in addition to drug activity and other criminal activity, fights and prostitution (which sometimes spilled into the surrounding neighborhood) were reason enough for the City Council to approve the Aloha’s condemnation on Oct. 27, 2014.
Connor Darlington, who has been on the Whatcom Homeless Service Center’s Homeless Outreach Team since 2017, said he knows people who used to stay at Aloha and Macs who now no longer can afford to live in a motel. Some people have gotten vouchers, but he said it depends on the person’s preferences. He knows some people who lived at Macs who stay at the Lighthouse Mission or even just in the woods.
A New Leaf
The Samish Way urban village complies with the requirements set by the Bellingham Home Fund to make 75 percent of living units targeting earners in the lower 50 percent of median income in the area (AMI).
“Our experience with our properties is we can get people living in a stable living environment they can afford and connect them with services as appropriate,” Thane said. In partnership with organizations like the Opportunity Council and Lydia Place, the housing authorities refer their residents who need support. These support services are funded by the Bellingham Home Fund levy.
While not immune to crime, he said, the properties are affordable and well managed. Usually crimes on housing authority property start with people who are not residents, he said.
“These are the rules. These are the expectations. You violate the lease, we will evict you,” Thane said. “Just being clear that criminal and destructive activity will not be tolerated, the vast majority of folks conform.”
Urban Village Project Details
The Samish Way urban village project is designed to host residents from a full spectrum of incomes, Thane said, including very low- and extremely low-income people. He said this model has been extremely successful, such as with the residences they developed at Walton Place downtown about a decade ago.
“By creating that mix, our properties do not experience significant crime,” he said.
This type of development combines units priced for people of moderate income and of low income, including people exiting homelessness, and households with people living with a disability.
“We’ll begin taking applications while still in construction phase,” Thane said. “Construction will take a little over a year, so summer or fall of 2020.”
Rooms designated for people across income brackets are indistinguishable from each other. Only each resident knows how much they themselves are paying for the apartments, which have lowered pricing for low-income earners.
RMC Architects and Dawson Construction have been putting the finishing details on the project and Thane said the complex will be built with active design principles in mind.
New additions made to the architectural plan in that sense include wide staircases and a stairwell going from the inner courtyard down into the parking garages, where bikes can be stored as well. Also, the office roof will have a garden accessible from the courtyard area and there will be a section for residents to have a garden.
Thane said the Samish Way urban village will be constructed in at least two phases.
First, a two-story parking garage will be built across the whole triangular property area. New housing authority office headquarters will be built in the north corner of the property, and residential building A will be constructed on the northwest side of the property facing Otis Street and across from Viking Village apartment complex. Sixty-nine apartment units will be built in this first phase.
Potential residents might not be too excited to move to Samish Way, Thane said.
“It’s just not the most attractive place as it is today,” he said. “Even if you’re lower income, sure the units are affordable, but am I going to feel safe and secure there?”
Thane said the housing authorities (Bellingham and Whatcom County) want to combine their offices into one space to make staffers work better together. But the move also shows the housing authorities’ commitment to go all-in to revitalize Samish Way and to catalyze further development of the village.
“I’m going to be showing up on site every day, just like the residents of the apartments will, and we’re committed to making this a nice, exciting place to live,” Thane said.
Residential buildings B and C will be built in the second phase of development, which is planned to get underway a year later. A commercial space will go in the south corner. They are waiting for an anchor tenant they can rely on to occupy the space before construction begins on that.
Thane said they are looking to have businesses there open into the evening hours, like cafés, restaurants and bars. Thane said one of the two residential buildings in phase two, probably residential B, would be for seniors age 62 and older. While there are already several senior living residential complexes around town, the urban village concept is of an intergenerational community structure, which does not segregate people, he said.
Of the 75 percent of apartments reserved for low-income earners, some will be set aside for those earning 30 percent or less of the area median income (AMI). How many apartments will depend on how the project gets financed.
Funding and Why It Matters
Construction of the two-story parking garage and building A with 69 apartments is currently estimated at a cost of $20 million, Thane said. The new Bellingham and Whatcom County Housing Authority office headquarters, also in phase 1, is estimated at a cost of $4 million. The estimates include land, parking and site costs, as well as soft costs such as architectural, engineering, legal and financing costs, among others.
On Dec. 20, the Bellingham Housing Authority was awarded $3 million from the state Housing Trust Fund by the Washington State Department of Commerce.
Thane said the award, which grants a soft loan, was the preferred financing option out of what was available.
For one, soft loans mean easy terms and a low interest rate. Also, with the award, out of the 75 percent of apartments set aside for low-income earners, about half would be targeted toward those earning 30 percent or less of the AMI.
State Low-Income Housing Tax Credit funds will cover about three-quarters of the remaining costs, Thane said, and the rest of the project will be financed with a soft loan from the Bellingham Home Fund, renegotiated at each phase of development.
“We’re really hoping the legislature will renew their commitment to affordable housing and make a larger appropriation to the State Housing Trust Fund,” Thane said, in anticipation of funding the second phase of construction.
Without the award, Thane said, the housing authority would have had to go to a bank and issue a tax-exempt bond — basically a mortgage which would finance about two-thirds of the costs, at a higher interest rate. On top of that, only a quarter of the costs would have been covered by Low-Income Housing Tax Credits and fewer apartments would go to those earning 30 percent or less of the AMI.
Editor’s Note: The article, Samish Station: New Student Housing, supplements this Samish Way urban village article.
• Anne Mackie: email@example.com, 360-739-0196
• Brien Thane, Executive Director/CEO, Bellingham Housing Authority, Housing Authority of Whatcom County, 360-527-4602
• Connor Darlington, Whatcom Homeless Outreach Center Homeless Outreach Team, 360-603-0035
• Darby Cowles, AICP, Senior Planner, Planning and Community Development, city of Bellingham, firstname.lastname@example.org, 360-778-8389
Giovanni A. Roverso is an Italian-American student at Western Washington University, focusing on visual journalism, website design and liberal studies.