High cost of rent in Bellingham squeezing poor, middle class tenants

Matt Petryni, left, and Hannah Fishman, members of the Bellingham Tenants Union, discuss the rising cost of living in Bellingham.
Matt Petryni, left, and Hannah Fishman, members of the Bellingham Tenants Union, discuss the rising cost of living in Bellingham. rmittendorf@bhamherald.com

If you think it’s tough to buy a house in Bellingham, try renting.

As housing prices have been rising through the roof for the past several years in Western Washington, it has sent ripples across local economies and government, from city hall to the streets, where a host of social issues are being blamed for the high cost living.

“It’s really a very tight housing market,” said long-time renter Patricia Herlevi. “I’ve gone to open houses of complete dumps and there’ll be 10 to 15 prospective tenants because it’s $500 a month.”

I wouldn’t say that landlords are gouging people, but they’re getting top dollar for their units because the market will support that.

Tom Follis, Bellingham real estate appraiser and broker

Renters comprise about 51 percent of the Bellingham population, according to Sperling’s Best Places, which gathers information on metropolitan areas. Matt Petryni, a local activist who’s part of the new Bellingham Tenants Union, said he thinks that figure is closer to 55 percent. The crisis is worsened by a citywide shortage of housing, especially affordable ones, Petryni said.

“It’s so hard to find any kind of housing in Bellingham,” Petryni said. “Renters are consistently paying a large percentage of their incomes. You don’t have a lot of options when you’re trying to rent. You find yourself accepting conditions and prices that aren’t going to work for you.”

Wage growth countywide, especially among lower and middle income residents, isn’t keeping pace with rising rents, Bellingham City Council members were told in a June presentation. City officials held a town hall in June to discuss the housing crisis, and some 200 people attended.

Few units to rent

One way to gauge volatility of the rental market is the rental vacancy rate, which was 1.82 percent in Bellingham in 2015, according to the online Department of Numbers, which collects social, economic and financial data from government agencies and other sources.

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, especially Western Washington University students, 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.

“I wouldn’t say that landlords are gouging people, but they’re getting top dollar for their units because the market will support that,” Follis said.

It’s just really hard and frustrating. It’s hurting the fabric of the community.

Patricia Herlevi, Bellingham

A healthy vacancy rate for landlords and tenants is between 3 and 5 percent, he said.

“It’s just really hard and frustrating,” said Herlevi, a freelance writer in her 50s. “It’s hurting the fabric of the community.”

The situation has forced grown children to move back in with their parents, and sometimes with their own children in tow.

It has stirred anger and activism among tenants and forced others to seek roommates when they’d prefer to live alone.

It has meant that renters often must forgo pets, because many landlords reject applicants with dogs or cats.

And it has prompted a rise in homelessness as some landlords refuse to accept lower-income tenants who use government housing vouchers, and other residents who simply can’t afford a place to live on a minimum wage salary.

‘Income discrimination’ cited

Alan Krum of Bellingham uses a Section 8 voucher to help pay his rent, and he considers himself lucky. He lives near a wooded area, an encampment of people who are among the city’s working poor – people who have jobs but can’t afford rent.

“I see them getting as neat as they can and going to work. They’re not bad people,” said Krum, who moved from Seattle to escape the high cost of living there. He became homeless when he lost most of his savings when his partner became ill, and “couch-surfed” with friends until a housing voucher and Medicare helped him get back on his feet.

April McCabe, a housing case manager at the Opportunity Council, said she sees many examples of such housing discrimination.

0.63% Vacancy rate for multifamily apartment buildings in Bellingham

“That stigma is truly devastating to people,” McCabe said during the city’s June town hall on housing. “Frankly, it’s really hard to stay positive with our clients and to hold them to that hope when we’re looking online together for housing and we see nothing that’s in our budget and ads that say ‘no housing assistance.’ ”

Many renters are finding themselves pushed from their units on short notice as owners plan to sell or landlords raise the rent.

“We were forced out of our lease March 20, 2017, after four years,” said Brandi Swent of Bellingham. “So April 1st we took family up on the offer to stay with them for a few weeks until finding a rental. It’s been four months.”

Rents rising sharply

As of June 2017, average apartment rent in Bellingham was $1,676 a month, according to Rent Jungle, which maintains rental databases. One bedroom apartments in Bellingham rent for $832 a month and two-bedroom apartments average $2,508 a month. Just five years ago, the overall average was $888 in Bellingham.

Zillow, the online real estate marketplace, said the average rent in Bellingham was $1,549 in May 2017, an increase of 6.8 percent since 2016. A Zillow report released last week shows the median home value in Bellingham rose to $342,300, up 10.3 percent since July 2016. Higher home prices are one factor in the high cost of renting, coupled with lower wages and a higher cost of living.

Workers in the Bellingham Metropolitan Statistical Area had an average hourly wage of $23.08 in May 2016, about 3 percent below the nationwide average of $23.86, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

We have to look into ourselves as a community and see what we’re doing that is creating this problem.

April Barker, Bellingham City Council

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.

Compounding the issue of rising rent is a requirement that tenants pay first and last months’ rent, plus a security deposit, before signing a lease.

“There’s a high financial hurdle to get in,” said Bellingham City Council member Michael Lilliquist. “The landlord should build that into the rent, but economics tells us that it doesn’t work that way.”

City Council addressing issue

Bellingham City Council member April Barker said city officials have been examining the crisis for several months and the council will be considering legislation soon to address the relatively new topic of “income discrimination.”

There’s no easy fix, Barker said. Discussion of housing affordability issues, including documents and videos, are online under the “Housing for All” heading at cob.org.

“We have to look into ourselves as a community and see what we’re doing that is creating this problem,” Barker said, adding that a city ordinance might extend the length of time tenants receive before being evicted without cause, longer notices for rent increases, and restrictions on banning renters who receive government aid, have pets or have felony convictions.

Longer term, I think we need to pursue different things like community land trusts and cooperative housing.

Hannah Fishman, Bellingham Tenants Union

“If you’re living on a lower income, you’re not a protected class,” Barker said.

Follis said the rental market is so tight that some students – who often spend the summer away from Bellingham at internships or in their home towns – are signing one-year leases instead of renting month-to-month.

Paying more, getting less

According to data from the City of Bellingham, building permits were submitted for multifamily projects that totaled $36.5 million in 2014, the highest annual total for that category since 2005. Through June, permits had been issued for 274 multifamily units, 4 duplexes and 113 single-family homes.

But development moves slowly, and it’s not unusual for a project to take a year to start once permits are issued. Bellingham is also short of room to build, with the only major plots of land located on the city’s north and northeast sides. Lately, the city has been focusing on building apartments for WWU students and so-called “infill” construction in existing areas. But development isn’t keeping pace with demand.

After remaining flat for several years as the nation recovered from the effects of the Great Recession, rents suddenly spiked in early 2015, beginning a steady rise from an overall average apartment rent of $881 in February 2015.

“My husband and I have been renting an apartment for just over two years now, having relocated here in spring of 2015 from Memphis, Tennessee,” said Britt Ervin. “The prices here are also ghastly for what you get. We are quite happy with our apartment, but have spent a lot of time looking at listings for units with no washer and dryer, no central air, no garbage disposal, and in not very nice condition for what you’d pay to rent an entire nice house in the South.”

“I looked for over a year trying to relocate closer to family,” said Anissa Michelle Carlson in response to a social media query. “No pets, high rents or they were gone as soon as the rentals posted. One woman said she got over 70 calls on her rental.”

Pets a problem

Finding a place to live is tougher for people with pets, people with disabilities and low-income people, especially those who rely on government Section 8 housing voucher – even though it’s guaranteed money.

“If it didn’t say ‘no pets,’ I would email them to see if they were dog-friendly and they would always say no,” said Lauren Murphy, who’s lived in Bellingham since 2009 and has a BA in environmental science from WWU. She lives with her boyfriend, and they had a year’s warning to make a decision about renewing a lease on a 700-square foot apartment. They couldn’t find a place that would take dogs.

“During work breaks I would always go on Craigslist and just jump on it,” she said. They finally settled on a slightly larger apartment on the edge of downtown.

3-5% Vacancy rate in a healthy market

$1,676Bellingham average monthly apartment rent in June 2017.

Murphy isn’t alone in her struggles to rent and keep a dog, said Laura Clark, executive director of the Whatcom Humane Society.

“Sadly, we are seeing the trend of animals being surrendered to shelters like the Whatcom Humane Society increase,” Clark said in an email. “In Whatcom County, with the increased cost of living, competition for affordable rental housing and a large population of college students, finding pet-friendly rentals can be extremely challenging.”

No easy solutions

As a search for answers continues, some residents are organizing and rallying the various neighborhood groups for support.

“The council really got the message that they need to do something about income discrimination,” said Petryni, of the Bellingham Tenants Union. “There’s not one easy solution. But they can make it easier for people who are qualified for housing assistance to be able to use it. Often, Section 8 tenants are better renters because their portion of the rent is affordable for them.”

At the town hall in June, Hannah Fishman’s told how her rent went up $150 month.

“That was crazy! “She said. “It was unaffordable. That’s one of the reasons we started organizing as a tenants union.”

In a recent interview, Fishman and Petryni said they see possible solutions to the current housing crisis in ideas that were popular more than 100 years ago, such as those that grew out of the progressive movement of the 1900s.

“Longer term, I think we need to pursue different things like community land trusts and cooperative housing,” Fishman said. “Ultimately, we need to be divorcing housing from the market as a commodity.”

Robert Mittendorf: 360-756-2805, @BhamMitty