While many Whatcom County renters and first-time home buyers are feeling pinched as the cost of housing goes through the roof, the area’s poorest residents know that it’s nearly impossible to find a place to live that they can afford.
Mothers fleeing domestic violence with their children, the elderly, military veterans, disabled people and the working poor – who all depend on “Section 8” housing assistance – are increasingly seeing their budgets strained or are unable to use the aid that they qualify to receive. That’s partly because local rents are rising above what assistance will pay for, but also because some landlords refuse to accept Section 8 recipients as tenants, even though their rent is guaranteed.
Rents are being raised above what vouchers can pay for.
Adrienne Solenberger, Opportunity Council
“It’s overwhelming,” said Brittany Nicholl, case manager lead at the Opportunity Council, which serves homeless and low income people through several programs. She and others at the Opportunity Council work directly with people who receive housing vouchers to pay their rent.
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“It’s definitely tougher,” said John Harmon, executive director of the Bellingham/Whatcom County Housing Authorities. “It hasn’t been this bad here since I’ve been here, and that’s 30 years. It’s the toughest market I’ve ever seen.”
The people, the program
Section 8 refers to the Depression-era federal housing program that offers rental housing assistance to private landlords through the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Recipients have household income of half the area median or less. Fraud in the system is extremely rare, Harmon said.
$747 Fair market rent for a two-bedroom unit, calculated by the Bellingham/Whatcom County Housing Authorities
$1,026 Average rent in August for a one-bedroom apartment in Bellingham, according to Rent Jungle
Nicholl said people with 50 percent or less of the area median are considered “very low income.” Current HUD figures are $1,996 for a single person; $2,279 for two people in a household; and $2,846 for a family of four. “Extremely low income” residents are those with 30 percent of the median income or $1,195 for a single person, $1,367 for two; and $2,050 for four.
Kasandra Richey Boote is among the 1,712 local recipients of Section 8 vouchers, a program managed through the housing authority. She lives with her fiance Don DeBeeld and their 5-year-old son Jaxsen DeBeeld in a two-bedroom apartment in the Barkley area. Don DeBeeld walks with a limp because he needs hip surgery after years of working physical jobs. Boote suffers mental and physical disabilities and is dogged by bad credit after a divorce in 2006. Boote’s two teenagers from a previous marriage sometimes stay with them.
“I’m trying to stay afloat and pay bills,” Boote said. “It’s been difficult. It’s a struggle to find a place willing to accept a voucher and a struggle to find one for the amount of your voucher.”
Management of the apartment complex where Boote lives no longer accepts vouchers, but Boote said she is being allowed to stay.
Boote receives Supplemental Security Income for disabilities, in addition to a voucher toward her $795 rent. Section 8 recipients can’t spend more than one-third of their income on rent and the amount of a voucher is capped at fair market rent for the size unit being rented. Boote said at least two of her neighbors recently received vouchers but are having trouble finding a landlord to accept them.
0.63% Vacancy rate for multifamily apartment buildings in July 2017
0.0%Vacancy rate for multifamily apartment buildings in October 2017
Jackie Dillard of Bellingham said she has a solid rental history but feels trapped in an untenable situation.
“I literally live in an apartment surrounded by drug addicts and not so good children,” she replied in response to a social media inquiry. “I won’t even let my son play outside in our apartment. Sounds luxurious, huh? I’ve been struggling trying to save money to move but rent is so high, I’m stuck.”
How much is too much?
Harmon said there’s no typical Section 8 recipient.
“Elderly people. Disabled. Families. Any kind of human condition that you can imagine,” he said. “Poverty is the only constant.”
Harmon’s organization manages some 3,500 affordable housing units in Bellingham and Whatcom County and also manages the Section 8 program. Vouchers are based on family size, and the voucher amount varies by the fair market rent.
A lot of people say, ‘I did all of these things right, the only thing I did wrong was be poor.’
Kate Stragis, Opportunity Council
In Bellingham, the housing authority calculates fair market rent as $659 monthly for an efficiency or studio, $747 for a one-bedroom, $968 for a two-bedroom and $1,409 for a three-bedroom. Voucher increases are planned for 2018, but Harmon fears that federal funding will remain the same – and that means fewer people may receive housing assistance.
Meanwhile, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Bellingham was $1,026 in August, a figure that’s a 7.76 percent decrease from August 2016 and 6.37 percent drop from July, according to data from Rent Jungle. But in the previous six months, one-bedroom units have increased by $306 monthly or 42.5 percent, Rent Jungle reported.
In its August report, Zillow pegged the average Bellingham rent at $1,633, a rise of 1.7 percent from July and a one-year increase of 13.7 percent. Zillow’s report doesn’t list average rent by apartment size.
Among apartments rented to Section 8 voucher holders, rent rose by an average 7.4 percent or $57 monthly through June 2017, according to a housing authority report.
“Rents are being raised above what vouchers can pay for,” said Adrienne Solenberger, the Opportunity Council’s landlord liaison. “This is something that’s new for a lot of people. It’s very difficult.”
A Whatcom County resident making minimum wage would have to work 52 hours a week to afford a one-bedroom apartment, according to the 2017 Out of Reach report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
“Too many people wanting to rent too few apartments”
Tom Follis, a real estate appraiser and broker in Bellingham, keeps a close watch on the local vacancy rate, which he said has been tightening in recent months. Apartment rents started to climb in 2015, spurred by a growing economy and a surge in population, he said.
In July, the vacancy rate dropped to 0.63 percent for multifamily apartment buildings, 1.5 percent for duplexes and 0.75 percent for single-family homes, Follis said. It’s at zero now – 0.0 percent vacancy for apartments, duplexes and condos. For single-family homes, the October vacancy rate is 2.5 percent, he said.
Harmon said those vacancy figures go to the heart of the problem – too many people wanting to rent too few apartments.
“The only way you can really decrease rents is to increase supply,” Follis said.
But even if the housing authority or private renters started planning a project today, Follis said the construction “lead time” of six months to more than a year might not solve the problem, and could even leave the area with a housing glut if the economy changes drastically. Harmon said an affordable public housing project, if planned now, would take two to three years to develop. Further, there’s comparably little buildable land in Bellingham.
“The time factor involved isn’t going to solve the problem today,” Follis said.
A low vacancy rate means landlords can be choosy about their tenants. Some said they won’t rent to Section 8 recipients because of damage caused by past tenants. Others said they don’t make generalizations, preferring to focus on individual tenants’ credit reports, references and ability to pay.
“Even people on Section 8 have a rental history,” said Robert Cunningham, a landlord who uses a realty company to manage his properties. He said those receiving Section 8 assistance aren’t bad people, they’re just in a bad situation. His wife and mother have received housing assistance at various times in their lives, he said.
Cunningham said he’s had his share of bad experiences, however.
“One guy, he went off his meds and did a lot of damage. But that’s a cost of doing business,” Cunningham said.
Opportunity Council’s Kate Stragis, a housing assistance and homeless outreach specialist, often hears complaints that reflect a stigma against poor people.
“A lot of people say, ‘I did all of these things right, the only thing I did wrong was be poor,’” Stragis said. “It can take them years sometimes to get a voucher, and then they can’t use it. It’s hard because the money’s there.”
Stragis and Solenberger agreed a stigma exists among many landlords that lower income people will damage an apartment or bring drugs and crime.
“There’s a lot of reasons why people say no, but the hardest one is where your money comes from,” Stragis said. “You’re trying to make a better life for yourself, but you can’t because no one will give you a chance.”
Dillard, a land surveyor who has a degree from Bellingham Technical College and a young son, has struggled to find work in her field.
“I waited eight months then got into the group housing at Lydia place in 2012 while I was pregnant,” Dillard said in response to a social media inquiry. “Was in transitional housing for two years and then got Section 8 and still on it. I do have a job and if it wasn’t for Section 8 I could have lost housing a few times for not being able to pay rent.”
A quote from Jackie Dillard of Bellingham in the 11th paragraph of this story was incorrectly attributed to Kathy Bodine Smith. The attribution was corrected Oct. 9, 2017.