By Lance Henderson
In a time when residential construction is extremely slow and funding of any kind is like a mirage in a seemingly endless desert, John Harmon and the Bellingham/Whatcom County Housing Authorities (BWCHA) are pulling down multimillion-dollar grants, attracting investors and generating some of the only residential and commercial building activity in town.
While Harmon is quick to point out that he is just at the head of a terrific team of people at the housing authorities, a team is often only as good as its leader.
In 2009, the BWCHA completed Walton One, a 51-unit affordable housing project along North State Street, and began the first phases of demolition to construct Walton Two, a 48-unit affordable housing project that includes 2,800 square feet of commercial space and an underground parking facility along East Champion Street. The housing authorities have also attracted more than $11 million in competitive grants and stimulus funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Productivity has definitely increased during Harmon’s tenure. Since he started with BWCHA 21 years ago, he has helped to introduce innovative financing methods using public/private partnerships, a funding combination of government funds and private investment through either direct investment or tax credits, to grow housing capacity from 1,500 units to approximately 3,400 units.
“The public/private partnerships are key to almost any new development in today’s environment,” Harmon said. “One of the other key things that have allowed us to go forward in the current environment is the track record we’ve built over the years. We have built 27 projects with more than 1,047 units.”
So many successes in the local market have given BWCHA a lot of credibility with local investors and partners, Harmon said.
“We have always pulled it off,” Harmon said. “We have always finished what we have started. That also helps us when we are buying land. We can say to anyone we are buying land from that we have never had a deal flip.”
Within a public/private partnership, there are often six or more major funders and the possibility of 25 to 30 major players involved in the overall design and construction process. Along with running the regular operations for the housing authorities, Harmon said he spends a great deal of time working with all the major players to ensure that complex projects move smoothly.
“Everybody has different interests and you have to respect that and manage the inevitable differences of opinion that will arise from different interests,” Harmon said. “It’s a balancing act. The ideal is to get the job done and make sure that everyone’s interests are satisfied.”
Aside from new construction, BWCHA has supplemented its annual maintenance and property rehabilitation program with more than $11 million that is being used for ambitious energy efficiency upgrades at various properties around the county. The most ambitious project uses just under $10 million and includes upgrading the boilers in the Chuckanut, Lincoln and Washington Square buildings. BWCHA will also look at the feasibility of solar upgrades.
“One of the things we hope to do is to increase the comfort level of these buildings by having a more tailored approach to energy delivery — not too much, not too little. The ideal temperature control is one that nobody notices,” Harmon said.
Harmon said one of the things that allow him and his team to stay focused is that, unlike cities or counties that have a variety of mandates, housing authorities have a very narrow directive: provide quality affordable housing to low-income people, the elderly and the disabled.
“For us, even though what we do is complicated, we feel our mission is pretty clearly laid out for us,” he said.