Bellingham measure would give extra protections to renters

What can be done about the high cost of housing in Bellingham?

Bellingham residents discuss the high cost of housing at a Bellingham City Council town hall meeting Tuesday, June 13, 2017, at Bellingham High School.
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Bellingham residents discuss the high cost of housing at a Bellingham City Council town hall meeting Tuesday, June 13, 2017, at Bellingham High School.

City Council members voted last week to consider an ordinance that would ban so-called “source of income discrimination” in rental housing citywide.

Council members voted 6-1, with Council member Terry Bornemann excused, to have its staff draft an ordinance that would prohibit landlords from rejecting prospective tenants because the applicants receive funds under the Section 8 assistance program for low income residents. The proposed ordinance also aims to strengthen renter protections against evictions and sudden, steep rental price increases.

“I think honest landlords have nothing to fear from it, if they use legitimate criteria for screening tenants,” said John Harmon, executive director of the Bellingham/Whatcom County Housing Authorities. Harmon’s organization manages some 3,500 housing units for lower income tenants in Bellingham and Whatcom County and also manages the Section 8 program, which has 1,712 local recipients.

I don’t want to live in a community that is economically one-dimensional.

Emily O’Connor, Lydia Place

Harmon was among several speakers from agencies that serve the poor and homeless who addressed the council during a part of last Monday’s meeting that was open to public comment. Residents and housing advocates also spoke during the comment period, which ran well past its allotted 15 minutes.

Legitimate criteria for screening applicants could include credit history and rental references, officials said.

Members of the council’s Planning Committee have been considering regulations against source of income discrimination and other tenant protections as part of discussions on “rental barriers” for about a year, prompted by the rapid rise in home prices and rental rates Bellingham has seen starting in 2012.

Bellingham’s median home listing price reached a historic high of $419,000 in August this year, according to Zillow. That’s up from $249,000 in February 2012. Meanwhile, the Zillow index for rent was $1,633 in August 2017, up 13.7 percent over the previous year and far outpacing the U.S. inflation rate of 1.6 percent.

bellingham aerial
Bellingham looking east. The green field in the middle is Battersby Field in front of Whatcom Middle School. The Bellingham City Council recently voted to consider an ordinance that would ban so-called “source of income discrimination” in rental housing. Philip A. Dwyer pdwyer@bhamherald.com

Tom Follis, a real estate appraiser and broker in Bellingham, said the local vacancy rate is at 0.0 percent for apartments, duplexes and condos. For single-family homes, the October 2017 vacancy rate is 2.5 percent. Follis blamed the majority of the high housing prices on limited supply and increased demand, although he agreed that some price-gouging exists.

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.

Here's how the Section 8 housing voucher program works, and why some of the poorest Whatcom County residents are having trouble finding a place to live that they can afford -- even with financial assistance.

Recipients have household income of half the area median, which in August 2017 was $1,996 for a single person and $2,846 for a family of four.

A Whatcom County resident making minimum wage must 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.

Last Monday, speaker after speaker addressed the high cost of housing and how it’s affecting the makeup of the Bellingham community, straining the incomes of its poor and middle class residents.

“I feel it is morally repugnant that landlords have taken advantage of the housing crisis by making the poor pay the brunt of the crisis by discriminating against individuals with housing vouchers,” said Betsy Pernotto. “Housing is a human right.”

Emily O’Connor, executive director of Lydia Place for homeless women, said she’s watched with dismay as Bellingham has become more gentrified and segregated in the 17 years that she has lived in the area.

“I don’t want to live in a community that is economically one-dimensional,” O’Connor told the City Council. “I think that hurts all of us.”

Other cities in Washington state have similar measures, including Bellevue, Kirkland, Redmond, Seattle, Tumwater and Vancouver, according to the website affordablehousingonline.com. In Texas, cities are prohibited from giving renters such protections, the website indicated.

Belllingham’s ordinance is being modeled on the one in Vancouver, said members of the council’s Planning Committee, who forwarded a recommendation to enact such renter protections after their work session earlier last Monday. Council members Gene Knutson, April Barker and Dan Hammill represent that committee.

The measure also includes protections that would give all tenants 60 days before they could be evicted without cause and a 60-day notice of a rent increase of 10 percent or higher. An exemption would be allowed for those who are renting a portion of a single-family dwelling when the owner or person entitled to possession of the dwelling maintains a permanent residence there.

“I think we need to be very clear that it’s only for if there’s no good cause,” Barker said. “If you’ve destroyed property, if you’ve not paid your rent, and had your warnings, all of those things – you don’t get protected for this. This for people that are just going along on their life and somebody’s decided ‘I want to move my son into my rental, I need you to leave in 20 days.’”

A draft ordinance should be ready for a second vote at the council’s Nov. 6 meeting, a city official said. No public hearing is required, but council members said they want to hear additional public comment on the issue and a hearing will be scheduled. Comments may also be submitted online to ccmail@cob.org.

Robert Mittendorf: 360-756-2805, @BhamMitty

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