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$2.1 million now available for food security, the homeless and low-income housing

Bellingham City Council approved reallocating ARPA money for needed services

The Bellingham Food Bank will receive another $500
The Bellingham Food Bank will receive another $500
By Julia Lerner Staff Reporter

Another $2.1 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds can now be used to fund services in Bellingham for homeless individuals, low-income housing projects and the local food bank.

City council members voted to support these projects earlier this year but needed to amend the city’s budget during a Monday, Aug. 7 meeting to use the funds.

“We already adopted plans for how we’re going to spend the rest of the ARPA money, but that wasn’t reflected yet in budget authority,” council president Michael Lilliquist said. “The budget amendment finalized the shift to add additional fundraising.”

Of the $2.1 million, about $500,000 will go to the Bellingham Food Bank, $1.6 million will go toward property acquisition for permanent affordable housing and $265,000 will support Lighthouse Mission’s Base Camp shelter. 

The Bellingham Food Bank, which received about $500,000 in ARPA funding earlier this year, has now received more than $1 million for “additional food security,” from the city, and additional operating and ARPA funds from Whatcom County — though it still may not be enough to meet the demand, which rose exponentially throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and again in 2023 as pandemic Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits expired. 

Bellingham Food Bank Executive Director Mike Cohen reported visits to the food bank are at an all-time high, with the food bank averaging 5,000 household visits per week — double what the agency saw at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The half-million dollars we got from the county … is one of the only reasons we have as much food on our shelves and in our freezers and coolers as we do have,” Cohen told the county council in March. “[But] it’s simply not enough.” 

Some of the reallocated funds for the food bank will come from a COVID Human Service Grant and other pools, city staff told the council. 

“That [$1 million] is partially achieved by reallocating $400,000 that was earmarked for a continuation of some COVID human services grants — some of that money was backfilled with some other general fund savings in the community development group, and some of that was just reprioritized to this critical need,” Deputy Finance Director Forrest Longman told council members. 

Cohen said Wednesday, Aug. 9, the funds will help “tremendously, but it’s not a solution.” 

“Both the Whatcom County Council and the Bellingham City Council have been very clear that they don’t see a way to keep [this] level of funding going after the ARPA dollars are expended,” he added.

Demand for low-income and affordable housing also continues to rise in the region, where homelessness has hit an all-time high and housing availability remains low. 

The remaining funds allocated on Monday will help support projects trying to tackle those challenges, Lilliquist said, with $1.6 million going to land acquisition for an affordable housing project by Bellis Fair Mall on the Guide Meridian.  

Another $265,000 will be used to support Lighthouse Mission’s emergency shelter in downtown Bellingham. The Base Camp funds will help the group pay rent at the facility on Cornwall Avenue while construction of the mission’s new, 300-bed shelter on Holly Street is ongoing — with an anticipated opening in 2024.

The affordable housing project, though, is still in the early phases, with the city planning to break ground on construction next year. The first phase of the project will include about 60 affordable housing units and potential child care facilities, Longman said. 

The funds represent a fraction of the city’s overall ARPA allocation — $20.99 million total — that must be “fully obligated” by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026, Longman said. 

Other projects supported by the city’s ARPA funds include the Samish Commons housing project, the Downtown Ambassadors pilot program and a mobile shower truck, among others. 

It was “a little bit complicated, moving some of that money around,” Longman said. “But hopefully, the highlights are bringing up that food security to a million dollars, the dollars for acquisition and support for Base Camp.” 

At this point, the city has spent just about one-third of its allocated ARPA funds, although it has committed almost 100% of the funds to projects. With the full approval of the budget amendment Monday, Longman reported just about $60,000 of the city’s ARPA funds remain undeclared. 

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