What is affordable housing?

Low-cost housing takes on various forms


Photo by Vincent Aiosa

Paul Schissler, executive director of Kulshan Community Land Trust, led the development of Matthei Place, an affordable infill housing project in Happy Valley.


Amy Neverdahl and Ernest Swordmaker both live in Fairhaven. They both have family that live nearby. They both enjoy the amenities of the semi-urban lifestyle, such as being able to walk to the grocery store or the library.

And they both live in “affordable housing.”

Neverdahl lives in Matthei Place, where Kulshan Community Land Trust built 14 units on less than one acre. Swordmaker lives several blocks away in Chuckanut Square, a nine-story building that is run by the Bellingham Housing Authority.

Their lifestyles are quite different, though, and so is their particular kind of affordable housing. Neverdahl is a 39-year-old single mom who teaches second grade at Lummi Nation School and Swordmaker is 68 and living on his Social Security pension.

They are joined by the fact that affordable housing has played an important role in getting them back on their feet.

For Neverdahl, who divorced four years ago and has been piecing together a new life for herself and her 7-year-old son Hayden, owning a home was the last piece of the puzzle.

“Being a teacher and being single,” she paused, “it could be a rougher road. This gave me a chance to start over and build equity again.”

For Swordmaker, finding affordable senior housing means that he doesn’t have to rely on his family to house him.

“I got a new lease on life here,” he said. “It means everything. I’m not a burden on my family. My son doesn’t have to take care of me.”

Before coming to Chuckanut Square, Swordmaker spent four years couch surfing and sleeping in an office he rented to store his artwork. His eyesight was deteriorating quickly, too, which made it hard to paint.

“I’d sneak in and sleep there. I was basically homeless,” he said.

If affordable housing didn’t have such an impact on the lives of people like Neverdahl and Swordmaker, it wouldn’t have led to a year-and-a-half-long discussion by the Countywide Housing Affordability Task Force (CHAT). This group of local leaders, developers, and housing nonprofits released a final report of their work in September that details the need for affordable housing and outlines steps to increase the number of affordable housing units.

But several types of affordable housing already exist in Whatcom County, and some CHAT members said they felt the report did not adequately delineate the options. Is it renting? Is it homeownership? Is it infill?

Which leads to the question: What exactly is affordable housing?


Matthei Place resident Roy Niendorf chats with Kulshan CLT executive director Paul Schissler inside Niendorf’s home.


Affordable for whom?

“The term “affordable housing” gets tossed around pretty frequently, but it’s not exactly clear what it means,” said Paul Schissler, executive director for Kulshan Community Land Trust. “The big question is: Affordable for whom?”

In order to qualify for most affordable housing programs, applicants must earn 80 percent or less of the median income. This year, the projected median income in Whatcom County is $63,000 for a family of four, according to the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development.

Adjusted for family size, a two-person family like the Neverdahls would have to make less than $40,300 to qualify for assistance.

When Neverdahl purchased her house in May she was making $38,412 as a first-year teacher. But she received a raise upon starting her second year and her salary grew to $40,946, just over the 80 percent threshold.

“We had a small window to qualify,” she said. “I couldn’t have bought it (the house) if I was a second-year teacher.”

Before choosing Matthei Place, Neverdahl scoured the market for homes she could afford on her own. As a single parent though, she wanted to stay on the south side of town to be close to her family. (Grandma offers free baby sitting after school.)

There were six or seven homes in the area that she could afford, but they all required extensive remodeling. Even with the help of handy family members, the task seemed overwhelming and expensive.

“When I drove around looking at houses, my dad said we’d have to level any house that I could afford,” Neverdahl said.

With Kulshan CLT, though, she was able to use her purchasing power of $142,000 to buy a home that cost the land trust $250,000 to build, thanks to mortgage gap financing.


Ernest Swordmaker lives in Chuckanut Square, run by the Bellingham Housing Authority, which takes one-third of his income as rent.

Living on little income

The Center for Economic and Policy Research states that the average household should spend about 30 percent of its monthly income on housing, be it rent or mortgage payments. And that includes the costs of utilities and insurance.

Swordmaker, whose monthly budget of about $1,000 includes his Social Security check and about $320 from working as the building manager, was making hardly enough to rent a one-bedroom apartment or studio.

“Even in low-income areas, it’s hard to find affordable rents because rent is so high,” he said.

But in Chuckanut Square, Swordmaker has a one-bedroom apartment with enough room to store his art and continue his writing. Every month he writes one check to the Bellingham Housing Authority for exactly 30 percent of his income — federal and state subsidies take care of the rest of the rent.

The average resident in elderly and disabled housing programs in Bellingham is living alone and has an income that is a mere 18 percent of the median income for a single person. At that level, renting is the only option.


Amy Neverdahl and her son, Hayden, 7, bought a house in Matthei Place for $142,000. The homes cost Kulshan CLT about $250,000 to build.

Rent versus own

Though the Bellingham Housing Authority could easily choose to subsidized affordable homeownership, it is able to serve more people through affordable renting, said John Harmon, executive director of the Bellingham Housing Authority

“Providing affordable rental units is the primary focus of our mission,” Harmon said. “I think [affordable rent] is key to the health of a community. People shouldn’t be seen as second-class citizens if they can’t afford to be a homeowner.”

Of all the programs that the housing authority offers, half of the demand it gets is for Section 8 vouchers. This federal subsidy allows residents to pay 30 percent of their income to rent and the government provides the rest. The beauty of the vouchers is that they can be used for any market-rate unit, as long as the landlord agrees to the program.

The housing authority currently has 1,693 residents in this program and a waiting list 1,676-people long.

“The voucher program is in highest demand, but the dollars for it are not growing,” Harmon said, referring to federal cutbacks.

Rental units certainly play a significant role in the spectrum of affordable housing, but renting doesn’t provide residents with the same benefits, financial and otherwise, of owning a home.

“We’re not arguing that homeownership is for everyone or that everyone should own a home, but there needs to be a good ratio of renters and homeowners in a community,” Schissler said. “We’re hoping that people see housing affordability as a good way to invest in their community.”


Smaller payment, smaller space

Rent or own, affordable housing is typically smaller than other units on the market, which makes sense: Big homes cost more to build.

For Neverdahl, a smaller mortgage payment meant a much smaller space than she is used to.

“This is much smaller than any place I’ve lived, except for maybe a few in college,” she said.

At just over 1,000 square feet, her two-bed, two-bath house is cozy and well-kept. The kitchen and living room downstairs resemble the size of the bedrooms upstairs. All in all, Neverdahl said, it is just enough room for herself, Hayden and their dog, Max.

“Some days it seems too cozy, some days it’s just right,” she said.

The one downfall about the new house is not having a garage to store sports equipment or do messy art projects, Neverdahl said.

“I have a small kid, so if he’s going to make a mess playing in the house, we have to clean it up before we can do anything else — there’s just not room,” she said. “But I like things tidy anyway.”

Whatever doesn’t fit in the house, from furniture to holiday decorations, Neverdahl stores over at her family’s house.

Matthei Place was intended to have small units, Schissler said. With 14 units on less than one acre, the project was demonstration for two things: affordable housing and infill development.

“We’re hoping it’s seen as a good example of how neighborhoods could incorporate more homes,” Schissler said.


Is infill affordable?

Some local developers see infill development as a way for the market to provide more affordable housing. Indeed, affordability is inherent in the idea of infill and the CHAT report promotes infill as a way for the market to provide affordable housing.

But is there demand for these types of units?

“There is a definite need,” said Jon Soine, a Realtor for Windermere and a CHAT member. “People like myself who are over 50 don’t need a four-bedroom house anymore. More people are downsizing as they get older.”

Soine also points to shrinking family sizes and the large population of college students as sources of demand for smaller living spaces.

But bringing that product to market under the current zoning codes and in the current housing market can be difficult.

“New home development is not for the faint of heart,” Schissler said. “Matthei Place was the first time we built new homes. It was very challenging. We maxed out all of our funding sources. And it took three years of planning and development before we could break ground.”

Whether the market will pick up on infill development — as a type of affordable housing or not — is anybody’s guess. But the public can’t afford to wait for the market to catch up on its own time, said Schissler. Incentives are needed to encourage private developers to build affordable housing.

“The market responds to certain pressures, but it doesn’t respond to people who don’t have money,” Schissler said. “Supply and demand by itself doesn’t create affordable housing.”


This is the second of a four-part series on affordable housing in Whatcom County.


To view the CHAT report

  • Go to www.cob.org
  • Click the “Government” tab, then click “Community Planning” under the “Public Involvement” section
  • Click the CHAT link under “Quick Links” on the right
  • Finally, click “Material by Meeting Date” to link to the final report


Affordable housing snapshot

  • Kulshan Community Land Trust: focuses on homeownership and provides mortgage gap financing for people who earn 80 percent of the median income or less. Owns 81 homes. www.kulshanclt.org
  • Bellingham Housing Authority: focuses on renting to low-income and elderly residents through programs like Section 8 vouchers. Provides 3,436 units. www.bellinghamhousing.org
  • Whatcom – Skagit Housing: focuses on “sweat equity” where groups of residents spend nine to 12 months building each other’s homes and thus lowering the building costs. www.whatcomskagithousing.com
  • Habitat for Humanity in Whatcom County: focuses on building homes through “sweat equity” and donated time and materials. Has built 26 homes in Whatcom County. www.hfhwhatcom.org
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