Building starts on Bellingham housing project for seniors

Construction will start this month on the Eleanor Apartments on North Forest Street, a $22 million project to create affordable housing for low-income seniors in Whatcom County.

Mercy Housing Northwest is building the apartment complex on the former Wilson Motors property in Bellingham.

It is expected to be completed in September 2017. The four-story building at 1510 N. Forest St. will be near bus services, have 80 one-bedroom apartments, a 3,000-square-foot community center and health and wellness services on-site in partnership with PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center.

Such health services on-site are important, those behind the project said.

“Our experience, and many studies, show that the biggest contributors to positive health and ability to live independently for seniors is having social connections, physical activity and preventative health,” said Connie Tran, manager of philanthropic events and marketing for Mercy Housing Northwest.

The apartments will be available to seniors 62 years and older. It will have two tiers of rent; one for seniors earning up to $14,700 a year and another for those earning up to $24,500 annually.

Finding affordable housing here is a challenge, where a low rental vacancy rate and high rents make it tough to get low-income residents into housing.

In a recent report, the Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies at the University of Washington said the apartment vacancy rate this spring in Whatcom County was 0.8 percent. That’s an improvement compared to September 2015, when the vacancy rate was estimated at 0.2 percent.

Seniors hoping to get into housing owned or managed by the Bellingham/Whatcom County Housing Authorities find themselves waiting one to three years for something to become available.

A city of Bellingham analysis of housing needs show that 75 percent of elderly rental households are low-income. A little more than one-third of those households are severely cost-burdened – meaning they spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing, said Samya Lutz, housing and services program manager for the city.

The Eleanor Apartments will help lower that rental burden.

Mercy Housing officials, city of Bellingham representatives, and others involved with the project gathered at the property Friday, Sept. 9, for a ceremonial groundbreaking, to talk about working together to address a need and to praise the compassion of the late Sister Eleanor Gilmore, whose name will grace the complex.

“These 80 units of affordable, permanent housing with supportive services will transform lives and help vulnerable seniors become self-sufficient,” said Bellingham City Council member Terry Bornemann.

He added: “Solving the housing crisis that our community faces is a lofty goal that will require extensive resources and commitment. Every unit helps, as does every bit of community support.”

Gilmore was a Sister of St. Joseph of Peace who served on the PeaceHealth and Mercy Housing Boards. She dedicated her life to serving others.

Having ministered to the people of El Salvador during that country’s civil war of the late 1980s, she later returned to found PazSalud, the El Salvador Health Care Mission of PeaceHealth and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, according to Mercy Housing officials.

Dawson Construction is the general contractor on the project. The construction costs about $12.5 million of the total project.

RMC Architects designed the complex.

The Eleanor Apartments will be the sixth housing project in Whatcom County for Mercy Housing Northwest.

About $2 million for the project comes through the city – a little more than $1.7 million from the levy Bellingham voters approved in 2012 to help the needy and the homeless get into affordable housing and roughly $280,000 from federal housing dollars given to the city.

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