Bellingham: Pet-friendly. Finding an affordable rental with ‘Fido’ is a different story

Alexa Kok plays with her chocolate lab in her apartment on Thursday, Aug. 17, in Bellingham.
Alexa Kok plays with her chocolate lab in her apartment on Thursday, Aug. 17, in Bellingham. eabell@bhamherald.com

Bellingham is a college town, so Lindsay O’Neal thought finding a place to live would be easy.

However, four months after beginning her search, with her school start date looming, O’Neal is getting worried. The crux of her problem: she has pets.

O’Neal, 35, has been looking for an apartment under $900 a month since April. She plans to study marine biology at Western Washington University in September, and like some students, she’s bringing her two cats with her to help with anxiety and stress. She’s now considering commuting 30 minutes to an hour each day from Blaine so she can still attend school in the fall.

“I’ve never had this issue before. Usually I find a place and then get the place, but it’s been a nightmare. I don’t know what it is,” O’Neal said. “I can’t believe how difficult the whole thing has been. … People are looking for perfect tenants and that’s not realistic. You have to have a lot of money and no pets, it’s ridiculous.”

O’Neal isn’t alone in feeling the pressure to find an affordable pet-friendly rental in the city, as many have expressed their disdain with the market on social media. According to Rent Jungle, average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Bellingham was $969 in July, up from $688 in June 2012. Zillow listed an overall average rent of $1,700 a month in June 2017, up from $1,278 per month in February 2012. Comparable pet-friendly rental statistics were not immediately available.

O’Neal is originally from Galveston, Texas, but currently lives in Enumclaw while she works at a spa and does a marine research internship in Seattle. She said throughout her renting history she’s never had this much trouble finding a place to live with her animals. Because of the need for an affordable pet-friendly rental, O’Neal said many people, including herself, end up compromising.

“For me looking it was either live in an apartment that was an affordable $650 a month, but in a bad area … or I have to find a way of affording an expensive apartment or live in a house with three other people,” she said.

O’Neal said while she might consider living with roommates, she would prefer not to have them because she has ADHD and going to school and living with others is too distracting for her. She said her two cats, Rusty and Spot, help her with anxiety and focusing.

O’Neal said landlords need to be more understanding when it comes to renting to college students or people who have pets.

“I feel like they’ve been burned by people, but they just need to screen people better rather than classifying students as being reckless and irresponsible,” she said. “There are not a lot of options for students with animals. … It’s easy to find a place to rent, you can rent a room or an attic, but they’re either really expensive or no pets. … There needs to be something affordable that’s not a risk for us either.”

If she can’t find a place to live, O’Neal isn’t sure what she’ll do. She said she may live in a hotel or end up not attending school this fall.

Property owners: No pets allowed

Windermere Property Management has about 1,600 doors of single family to multifamily housing, and roughly 3,300 doors to condominiums that the company manage within Whatcom County, said owner Doug Wight. Only about 160 of those doors are pet friendly.

Wight said it’s not Windermere’s policy that allows or bars pets from living on properties –the property owners dictate the terms. If the property allows pets, it’s usually a $250 one-time non-refundable charge, as well as a possible additional security deposit.

Wight said there’s a gap in the market for affordable pet-friendly rentals. There are more people looking than there are accommodations available, he said.

“There isn’t much. There really isn’t. There isn’t many people who will jeopardize the value of their assets by allowing pets as just an open-ended program,” Wight said.

He said sometimes the pet policy will have breed or animal-type restrictions, such as cats only. Sometimes, they’ll do pet interviews or take the requests back to the property owners to see if they’d be willing to allow a well-trained animal on the property, Wight said.

Renters will sometimes violate the pet policy and bring animals into their apartments, Wight said. If that happens, property managers will try to negotiate with the tenant and owner to come to a resolution, and eviction would be used as a last resort, he said.

“I think it’s more and more a concern for the damage to the unit or to the asset as years have gone by,” Wight said. “There’s more and more caution about having pets and yet there’s more and more interest in having pets.”

A ‘hole in the market’

Other property management companies, such as FPI management which operates three complexes in Bellingham, two of which are for people aged 55 and older, said they understand the need for places that accept pets. All three of the complexes are pet-friendly.

“I think there is a hole in the market. We get a lot of people calling and asking ‘Are you really pet-friendly, because I can’t find a place for me and my dog to live,’” said Shelley Amarillas, community director for The Vintage at Bellingham. “We understand how some apartments don’t want pets there. Pets can do damage to the apartments, but at the same time for a lot of people their pets are like family. We don’t want to restrict anybody from living here just because they own a pet.”

Moving without Fido

Some people end up surrendering their animals because they can’t find a place to live.

“Sadly we are seeing the trend of animals being surrendered to shelters like the Whatcom Humane Society increase,” wrote Laura Clark, executive director for WHS, in an email. “It is all too common to see people being forced to surrender a pet to the shelter because they can’t find either affordable rental housing or a landlord willing to accept a particular breed or species of pet.”

Clark said pet owners should have a pet resume showcasing obedience training, vaccinations and references from previous landlords. They also should allow themselves ample time to find a place to live, she said.

Know where to look

But Alexa Kok said it’s easy to find a pet-friendly rental if you know where to look.

Kok, 26, moved into her current home, at the Meadows by Vintage on Meadowbrook Court, nearly four years ago. She has fostered animals there, as well as called the place a home for her and her 70-pound chocolate lab named Gandalf. Kok said the frustration for others might stem from people not being aware of where the most affordable pet-friendly rentals are.

“I understand it can be tricky, but they’re out there. … They don’t not exist, they totally do exist. Kok said. “There’s so many places up here.”

Kok’s two roommates also have animals; two dogs, a cat and a veiled chameleon. Kok said the Cordata neighborhood, while slightly more out of town than some may like, has numerous pet-friendly rentals and fairly short waiting lists.

Kok found her rental on Craigslist after spending some time searching through other avenues. She said her landlord only requires a 10-day notice that a pet of any kind is moving in. She acknowledged that the search can be disheartening at times, though.

Even so, Kok said she’d rather sleep in a bush than abandon Gandalf in order to find a place to live.

“That dog in your hands is defenseless, you can’t throw him away because you can’t find a place to live,” Kok said. “It’s all just one big jacked-up situation when it comes to rentals. I wish more people knew there are places. ...I think there should be more.”

Denver Pratt: 360-715-2236, @DenverPratt