In response to growing numbers of families, seniors, veterans and others experiencing or at risk of homelessness, housing and homeless advocates in Bellingham, Washington have launched a campaign for a property tax levy to establish the Bellingham Home Fund. The levy will be decided by Bellingham voters on November 6, 2012. If passed, the Bellingham Home Fund will produce, preserve or assist at least 1,300 homes that will benefit thousands of Bellingham households for whom the private housing market is unaffordable.
The levy would impose a tax of 36 cents per $1,000 of property value, which would generate $21 million over 7 years to meet local housing needs. Bellingham Home Fund advocates estimate that the $21 million investment will leverage another $70-$140 million in private, state and federal funding. The Bellingham Home Fund would be administered by the Bellingham Planning and Community Development Department. Eligible activities include the development, rehabilitation and preservation of rental housing affordable to people at or below 80% of area median income, with at least 2/3 of the funding earmarked for housing for people at or below 50% of area median income. A modest amount of funding is also reserved for supportive services dedicated to housing for people with special needs who reside in permanent supportive housing developed with levy funds.
Drawing from a committed core of advocates, strong leadership from the Bellingham City Council, and a track record of successful housing and homeless programs, the Bellingham Home Fund campaign has had strong momentum since its launch in April. The launch event drew 90 people representing 77 organizations, all of whom signed an endorsement pledge asking the Bellingham Council to put the housing levy on the ballot. Local media coverage of the proposed levy was very positive. By early June, the City Council, led by Commissioner Seth Fleetwood, had voted unanimously to place the levy on the November ballot.
“Housing and homeless advocates have been considering a local housing trust fund for years, but as the realities of the recession have meant a growing number of people either experiencing homelessness, or at high risk of homelessness, it was clear that we needed to take action now to secure housing funding,” said Greg Winter, Director of the Whatcom Homeless Service Center. “Bellingham is a small city. We know each other here. No one is okay with seeing families, veterans and others sleeping outside or in cars because we do not have enough affordable housing. Putting a solution on the ballot gives people a chance to take action and fix things.”
Though the public campaign for the Bellingham Home Fund did not start in earnest until late August, campaign leaders had been developing a communication and outreach plan since early March. Utilizing a set of housing messages developed with public opinion research by the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, advocates created a strategy that would emphasize who was being housed and why housing matters to all people in Bellingham. The campaign correctly anticipated that opponents would use well established and very effective anti-tax messages. The Housing Alliance housing messages gave the campaign a tool to counter the anti-tax messages by focusing the conversation on values proven to resonate with Washington residents, such as the belief that everyone should have the opportunity to live in a safe, healthy, affordable home.
The execution of the communication strategy has been effective. The campaign website uses images and stories featuring the people who would be housed by the Fund that align and evoke the tested messages. Campaign materials all reflect Housing Alliance messages as well, with the campaign slogan “affordable homes for our seniors, veterans, families.” Media coverage has picked up on the message frames, and the opinion pieces and letters to the editor from campaign supporters have been consistent and focused. The campaign has maintained an informal communications round table via email through which leaders share ideas about how to respond to media opportunities.
In late August, the campaign launched its field strategy. Advocates began door knocking in neighborhoods throughout the city. In addition to talking with voters and distributing literature, advocates asked people the significance of home in their lives, and then broadcast the public response via social media and the campaign website. In September, the campaign sent a mailer to 15,000 households, nearly half of Bellingham voters. A second mailer is scheduled for mid October, a week before ballots are distributed. Endorsements of the levy will also be included in literature distributed before the November vote. In addition to the political allies, the campaign has also been endorsed by a growing number of local businesses and community leaders.
“We are optimistic that the voters are ready to support the Bellingham Home Fund,” said Paul Schissler a local activist with the Bellingham Home Fund. “This whole campaign boils down to some basic values that we believe the people of Bellingham share: It should be possible for working families, veterans, seniors, and people with disabilities to afford housing and still have enough money for the basics like groceries, gas and child care. Right now, this is not the case. People get that, and people get that the Bellingham Home Fund is a solution that will create the housing we need.”
Contact: Greg Winter, Whatcom Homeless Service Center, 1111 Cornwall Avenue, Bellingham, WA 98225 (360) 220-3788 or firstname.lastname@example.org