Zillow says Bellingham apartment rental prices are down. But is that a hiccup?

Why is it so hard to find an apartment in Bellingham?

A lack of affordable units and a tight housing market make it difficult for low- and middle-income earners to find a place to rent in Bellingham.
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A lack of affordable units and a tight housing market make it difficult for low- and middle-income earners to find a place to rent in Bellingham.

Rents in Bellingham and other Whatcom County cities have declined in the past several months according to a new study, but local observers say they’re not seeing rent declines and don’t see the housing crisis easing.

Average monthly rent for the Bellingham metro area was $1,547 in June, down a half a percentage point from May, according to Zillow Research data released this week.

That’s an annual countywide drop of 2.2 percent and it shows a steady decline in metro-area rental prices from a peak of $1,672 a month in October 2017.

Average Bellingham metro area rent was $1,582 a month at the same time last year.

In the city of Bellingham, monthly rents were down 0.7 percent to $1,618 in June for an annual decline of 2.6 percent, Zillow reported.

Zillow, an online real estate company, collects statistics that include home prices and rental costs throughout the U.S.

Average rent nationwide is $1,440 a month.

Bellingham rents have been falling steadily since a peak of $1,734 in October 2017., according to Zillow

Average monthly rent in Bellingham was $1,662 in June of last year.

Tom Follis, a Bellingham real estate appraiser and broker, said he suspects that the Zillow report is an aberration.

“I think it’s an anomaly rather than a trend,” Follis said. “There a lot of ‘for rent’ signs out, no question. But they’re aimed at the college students.”

Follis said the Zillow statistics can’t reflect nuances of a local market.

“If they say it’s going down, I think it’s a hiccup,” Follis said.

He said local vacancy rates, the biggest driver of higher rents, remain less than 1 percent for houses and duplexes in Bellingham and about 2 percent for apartments.

Economists say that a healthy vacancy rate is between 6 percent and 7 percent.

Kimberly Huizenga, the director of property management for Landmark Real Estate, said she’s not seeing rent declines at Landmark or any of its competitors.

“That’s definitely not what our internal data is showing,” Huizenga said.

She said Landmark is raising its rental rates between 7 percent and 14 percent. Lower rates were offered to those who wanted to renew their leases, and the higher rate is for new tenants.

“I’m continually looking at our competitors and they’re all raising their rates, too,” Huizenga said. “We had way more tenants renew than vacate. People just don’t want to move because they can’t afford it.”

Huizenga said it’s possible that Zillow’s numbers might be skewed because the market’s low vacancy rate limits the available data because there’s only a small number of apartments available.

Bellingham rental prices began a steady climb about five years ago, reflecting a broad rise in the price of single-family homes.

In an attempt to ease the local housing crisis without adding sprawl, the city of Bellingham has been encouraging “infill” growth around its commercial centers and adding apartment complexes near Western Washington University and on the city’s north side.

City Council members also passed a measure outlawing source-of-income discrimination in rental housing and made it easier to build backyard apartments, carriage houses or “granny flats.”

Permits have been issued for 76 units in multi-family housing or apartments through March of this year, according to city of Bellingham records.

Permits for more than 1,500 multi-family units have been issued citywide since 2013.

Bellingham also has seen steady population growth, with 80,885 residents in the 2010 census and an estimated 2017 population of 89,045.

Even though local real estate professionals are reporting the opposite, Zillow records show that a decline in average monthly rent started in November and is the first sustained decline since rental prices saw a three-month dip in spring and summer of 2014.

Elsewhere in Whatcom County, average Ferndale monthly rent fell 0.4 percent to $1,548 — a yearly drop of 3 percent, Zillow reported.

In Lynden, average rent fell to $1,578 and in Blaine it was $1,490.

But rents are rising elsewhere in Whatcom County, especially northeast of Bellingham.

“People are fleeing the higher rents in Bellingham for outlying areas where rents are generally lower,” Follis said. “They’re willing to drive 15 to 20 minutes in order to save themselves a couple hundred dollars in rent.”

Maple Falls rents rose 24.5 percent, Deming was up 7.7 percent, Sumas was up 3.5 percent and Everson was up 2.3 percent. No dollar figures were listed in the Zillow report for those areas.

Robert Mittendorf: 360-756-2805, @BhamMitty