By Emily Hamann
The Bellingham Business Journal
Local families experiencing homelessness are getting a roof over their heads this winter, with some help from a nonprofit, a property manager and one of Bellingham’s most famous residents.
In November, actor and Bellingham resident Misha Collins sent out a message over his social media channels, urging his almost 3 million followers to buy T-shirts and other items, with the proceeds going to Bellingham nonprofit Lydia Place.
His goal is to get a home for every homeless parent with children in Bellingham.
“I moved to Bellingham from Los Angeles, where the problem of homelessness and homeless kids and homeless families, it almost seems disheartening to think about,” Collins said. In Bellingham, however, the 2017 homelessness survey found that there’s fewer than a hundred families without homes.
“Finding housing for that group of people feels achievable,” Collins said. “It’s a stretch, but it feels really possible.”
Collins, who stars in the popular TV show “Supernatural,” has been working toward this goal since summer, and he’s enlisted some help from the nonprofit and private sector.
Collins and his wife, author Vicki Vantoch, have supported Lydia Place for a while. They first got connected while participating in their Adopt a Family program over Christmas one year.
As Collins worked more with Lydia Place, he learned more about the struggles they have finding housing for their clients.
“They were having difficulty placing families into housing because the housing market is so tight,” he said. “Landlords have so many applicants for each vacancy, there’s always a better-qualified applicant who has perfect credit and landlord history.”
Collins and Vantoch own a rental property, and Vantoch reached out to their property manager, Troy Muljat, owner of Landmark Real Estate Management and The Muljat Group real estate company.
They wanted to open up some of their units to Lydia Place’s clients. Muljat loved the idea, and ran with it. By December, they had found housing for 12 families total.
They wanted to expand the program further, but Lydia Place’s resources were maxed out.
“That’s when I did this little T-shirt fundraiser,” Collins said.
The goal was to raise $100,000. They exceeded it. Beginning in January, Collins and Lydia Place are launching a local fundraising campaign, to continue funding the partnership. Random Acts, the charitable foundation Collins co-founded, plans to match up to $64,000 in donations made by the local community.
“We are trying to put Bellingham families into housing,” Collins said. “This community I think is the right place to help on that.”
A housing crisis, made worse
Lydia Place has been helping Bellingham’s homeless population get shelter and services since 1989. Its goal is to disrupt the cycle of homelessness, focusing on getting children and families into housing, and on the path to success.
In January 2017, the annual homeless census found 742 people were homeless living in Whatcom County. Before they lost their housing, more than two-thirds of them lived in the county. The census also counted 94 homeless families with children. Of those, 74 were single-parent families.
People coming off the street are directed to Lydia Place by the Opportunity Council.
“The primary thing they’re going to get right off the bat would be really intensive case management,” Emily O’Connor, executive director of Lydia Place, said.
They get set up with a case manager, who helps them get their paperwork in order, apply for any assistance, connect them with care and education for their children and connect them with mental health care if they need it.
Lydia Place also helps find them housing, and sometimes helps them pay rent.
Recently, its job has become more difficult.
“It has gotten harder and harder to find property management companies who are willing to rent to us,” O’Connor said.
Part of the problem is getting vouchers for subsidized housing in the Bellingham rental market.
The federal government decides what it considers a fair market rent for the area, and it won’t subsidize housing for low-income people above that level.
However, as the rental market gets tighter in Bellingham, landlords are able to charge more for rent, often above what the federal government designates as fair market value.
So often, it’s difficult for Lydia Place to even find a unit that’s cheap enough to qualify for government subsidy. Even then, there’s no guarantee that the landlord will decide to accept the government vouchers.
That was the existing challenge. Then in spring of 2017, news broke that the Trump administration planned to cut $6 billion from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the organization that pays for the Section 8 vouchers, the commonly-used subsidized housing program.
The Whatcom County Housing Authority estimates those cuts could eventually lead to 200 fewer vouchers available to people in Whatcom County.
“As other resources dwindle, we need our community to step up,” O’Connor said.
The private sector steps up
In fall of 2017, the apartment vacancy rate in the county was .6 percent. That’s according to the University of Washington’s Runstad Center for Real Studies.
With a market that tight, it’s difficult for a person with a stable income to find an apartment, let alone someone facing the additional challenges of poverty, and needing a subsidy to pay rent.
“With the rental market very strong, rental owners, they can sometimes be very selective on their tenants,” Muljat said. Many property owners often don’t even accept Section 8 vouchers.
“There’s a lot of stereotypes in the community on homelessness,” Muljat said.
One of the things he’s working to do is end those stereotypes.
After Collins and Vantoch opened up some of their units, Muljat wanted to encourage his other property owners to do the same.
“We’ve made it rewarding and fun,” he said.
He set up some incentives to encourage property owners to lower the rents on some of their units and allow Lydia Place’s families to move in.
If the property owners agree to the program, Landmark doesn’t charge them any management fees on those units. It also pays for extra insurance, so there’s little risk to the property owner.
Kimberly Huizenga, director of property management at Landmark, said that Lydia Place being involved makes it easier to convince property owners to sign on.
“Lydia Place is really involved with its residents,” Huizenga said. Once Lydia Place helps place a family, it keeps it contact with them, continuing to offer services and help them.
Property owners get an extra guarantee with Lydia Place involved.
“They will make a payment plan, or have even stepped up and helped pay the rent,” Huizenga said. “It’s in essence like having a co-signer on the lease.”
She said Landmark’s goal for 2018 is to expand the partnership, and house 24 families.
“I would like to see the private sector solve the problem, period,” Muljat said.
A template to follow
Homelessness is an issue that’s close to Collins’ heart.
“I was raised by a single mom who was on welfare at times and we were homeless for some stretches of my childhood,” Collins said, “and it’s just an issue that has a lot of personal resonance for me.”
He regularly walks by the drop-in shelter on Holly Street.
“I make a point when I’m going by to drop by and say hi to folks,” he said.
“Also having young kids myself, I just think about the prospect of being a homeless parent with small children,” he said. “Because I am a parent I feel like I have a little more of an empathetic understanding of what that might be like and it seems really hard.”
Then, he watched as the federal government threatened cuts to HUD, the subsidized housing program his family relied on when he was a child.
“We were in subsidized housing for several years when I was a kid as well, and I know that had a profound beneficial impact on my family,” he said. “And I’m very disappointed to see our federal government cutting that.”
That means the burden falls to local communities.
“It’s property owners. It’s individuals in the community. It’s whomever can help,” he said. “I feel like times like that are all hands on deck.”
Muljat also feels called to do his part.
“I think, yes, we are obligated to help,” Muljat said. “We’re called as business leaders to give back.”
His hope is that this idea spreads to his competition.
“I would challenge other property owners, landlords, property management companies to do the same,” Muljat said.
Collins has hope, however, that this partnership has the potential to spread, even beyond Bellingham.
“I also love the idea of the way that Bellingham tackles its housing problem and it’s homelessness problem could someday be a template that other towns and cities try to follow,” he said.
Jan. 3: This story has been updated to reflect that Random Acts will be matching up to $64,000 in community donations.