Editor’s Note: There are over 100 organizations in Whatcom County working to provide supportive services to the general population and to those experiencing chronic poverty and its associated effects: addiction, homelessness, incarceration, mental illness, unemployment and civic engagement organizations. Whatcom Watch believes these organizations often labor unnoticed by citizens — this column is designed to add daylight to their endeavors. We have contacted the organization appearing in this column and asked them to explain their mission. Because, in challenging times, being inspired and perhaps empowered by the acts of others is more important than ever.
by Kerri Burnside
The Bellingham Tenants Union (BTU) formed in 2017 after a group of tenants faced severe issues in Bellingham’s housing market. Some dealt with unresponsive landlords neglecting mold and broken appliances, while others coped with sudden rent hikes, forcing them into frantic searches for affordable housing. A few even had to leave Bellingham, enduring longer commutes to work in the city.
Our motivation stemmed from the lack of tenant representation in City Hall. Policies favored landlords and developers, with homeowners dominating council memberships and public discussions. In response, we established BTU.
Our journey began with significant victories, including legislation against income discrimination and extended tenant notices. We backed the Home Fund ballot initiative, fostering ties with tenant organizers statewide. BTU played a consistent role in advocating tenant rights, especially during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Notably, we pressured Representative Sharon Shewmake to support “Just Cause Evictions Protections,” making Washington one of three states with such laws. We also fought for free legal representation for low-income tenants facing evictions, especially as the pandemic unfolded.
More recently, the City’s Fair Housing Assessment, conducted for the Comprehensive Housing Plan (now known as the Bellingham Plan), under-represented tenants in their data gathering. Recognizing this oversight, BTU took the initiative to bridge it by creating a survey designed for tenants to candidly share their experiences as renters in Bellingham. Utilizing methods such as tabling, door-knocking, and tenant assemblies, BTU successfully reached a more extensive and diverse group of renters. Following the collection of invaluable data from these renters, BTU engaged in productive discussions with Blake Lyon, director of Planning and Community Development. These discussions effectively conveyed renters’ voices and needs.
The collaborative efforts yielded remarkable results, with many tenant requests advocated by BTU earning a prominent place on the “Menu” of options presented to the City Council. This tangible progress underscores the growing momentum behind our endeavor to bring these critical measures to fruition, solidifying our commitment to improving the lives of renters in Bellingham.
In 2023, we aimed to stabilize rents and ensure affordable housing in Washington. Despite legislative setbacks, BTU remains unwavering. We’re redirecting our efforts toward improving tenant conditions in Bellingham and Whatcom County.
“The Big Lift”
While we acknowledge the need for diverse rental options, simply building more homes won’t solve our housing crisis. Intentional rent stabilization efforts are essential, forming the foundation of safe and secure communities. To address these challenges, BTU collaborates with housing-impacted communities on “The Big Lift.”
The Big Lift calls on local governments in Whatcom County and Bellingham to promise and implement shelter. This demands coordinated resources, political will, and collective decision-making for public welfare. For governments used to market-based, incremental approaches, it is in every sense, a big lift.
It outlines principles for shelter and housing justice, recognizing dignity as fundamental. It identifies housing as the solution, not the problem, and calls for accessible housing and services.
The Big Lift links homelessness and housing crises, exposing systems that profit from both. Without accountability, tenants and vulnerable homeowners suffer. Individuals are left to solve a society-wide issue, adding trauma to the loss of their homes.
If the City of Bellingham and the county governments were to adopt the six principles/values in the Big Lift:
• The promise of shelter
• Prioritizing and valuing dignity in every intervention
• Government embraces risk and ultimate responsibility for public health and welfare
• Leveraging existing funding and policies, and creating new ones as we need them
• Representation and advocacy from impacted residents
• Moving from temporary sheltering to permanently affordable and stabilized housing
We could truly begin to build a robust safety net that ensures safety for our most vulnerable residents and promotes healthy communities.
Our current city government and planning department lack the coordination needed to address homelessness and housing crises. Promised shelter remains elusive, and responsibility is often shifted to private entities. We miss opportunities for funding and rely on assessments from profit-driven entities, failing those affected by housing issues. To break the cycle of crises, we must work together to build community safety and health.
Dignity Over Charity
Over half of Bellingham’s residents are tenants. BTU is dedicated to aiding tenants in organizing for their housing needs, prioritizing dignity over charity. We strive to create spaces where tenants can come together, not just during crises, but consistently.
Our goal is to ensure that tenant experiences and voices shape our city and county policies. You can get involved by participating in our events (www.bellinghamtenantsunion.org/events) or reaching out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tenants can become members, and supporters and allies can join our email list or donate to support our work.
When organizing tenants in your building, apartment complex, or neighborhood, reach out to the tenants union so that we can support your efforts. Currently, BTU includes organized tenants from Eleanor Apartments, Old Mill Village, Meadow Wood Townhomes, and 1210 Ellis St.
Visit www.bellinghamtenantsunion.org to learn more about BTU or complete the survey, available in both Spanish and English.