New laws aim to combat income discrimination, protect renters
Five months after Bellingham sought to ease the rental burden on its poorest residents, those who receive Section 8 housing assistance still face an exhausting struggle just finding a place to live.
As the cost of real estate continues to rise across the Northwest, many rentals are simply too expensive for low-income people, even with federal vouchers that guarantee payment to landlords.
Some landlords raised their rents immediately after Bellingham’s “source-of-income discrimination” measure took effect in mid-March, and at least one Bellingham rental agency was advertising last week that it didn’t accept federal housing vouchers as payment for rent — in apparent violation of the new city ordinance.
That rental agency changed the wording of that ad, and removed language from its website that said housing assistance wasn’t accepted.
“If you went on Craigslist, you saw the price of apartments went up so they couldn’t afford it,” said Sarah Elisabeth Bede, who’s living in a car with her partner and one child under 10.
“I am looking for a place with an Opportunity Council voucher which is similar (to Section 8) and I still see places saying ‘no assistance, no section 8,’” she said.
Bede has a voucher for $1,028 and will get help with first and last month’s rent, security deposit and rent for the first few months.
She left a domestic violence situation a few years ago, and had been living in a shelter for women and their families, but now she has a partner who’s seeking full-time work and they’ve been searching without success for a two-bedroom house or apartment in the $1,200 range.
And living in her car.
According to the online real estate company Zillow, the median price of an apartment in the Bellingham metro area was $1,609 in July — a figure that encompasses all kinds and sizes of rentals, from homes to apartments and condos.
That’s down from $1,697 in July, the second straight month that Zillow showed a decrease in rental prices for the Bellingham metro area, which essentially means Whatcom County.
Rent Jungle, another online data source, also shows rental prices decreasing substantially from 2017 to an average $922 a month for a one-bedroom apartment and an average $1,197 for a two-bedroom apartment.
Local rental agencies, however, said the landlords they represent are asking for increases of between 7 and 14 percent.
Kimberley Huizenga, director of property management for Landmark Real Estate, confirms Bede’s observations.
“(The Bellingham ordinance) ended up having the opposite effect, unfortunately,” Huizenga said. “Some landlords raised their rent so Section 8 renters wouldn’t qualify.”
Adrienne Solenberger, landlord liaison for Whatcom Homeless Service Center and the Opportunity Council, said she doesn’t see rental prices decreasing, despite the figures that online services are posting.
“Rent prices have gone up substantially,” Solenberger said. “Another thing we’re starting to see is displacement of our elders, especially women. There’s a lack of housing in general“ and no wiggle room for the amount of money that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development sets for its Section 8 vouchers.
HUD’s fair market rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $790 in the Bellingham metropolitan statistical area.
A voucher for two-bedroom apartment is $1,028, a three-bedroom unit is $1,495, and the allowance for a four-bedroom is $1,811.
Those figures are all increases from last year, but everyone agrees that it’s not enough.
“I just got my Section 8 voucher last year in September,” said Renee Sheek, formerly of Bellingham. “I had a lot of trouble finding a place that accepted it. I ended up having to move all the way out to Sumas because that’s the only place I could find within the 90 days they give you to find a place.”
Meanwhile, current census figures show that 22 percent of Bellingham’s estimated 89,045 residents earn below the federal poverty line, which is $12,140 for one person, $16,460 for a couple and $25,100 for a family of four, according to healthcare.gov.
Bellingham isn’t alone.
No U.S. state has an adequate supply of housing for the poor according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which reports on housing trends.
Its 2017 Gap Report shows that Washington state had 230,395 extremely low-income renter households, and only 29 affordable rentals were available per 100 such households.
And its 2018 Out of Reach Report said Washington has the eighth-highest “housing wage” in the nation, meaning a renter must earn $26.87 per hour to afford a two-bedroom rental home or apartment.
It takes 93 hours of work at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 to afford that unit, the report said. Washington’s minimum wage is $11.50 an hour.
Bellingham’s source-of-income discrimination ordinance was intended to help ease that burden on both its poorest and middle-class renters.
In addition to outlawing source-of-income discrimination, the measure also strengthens renter protections against evictions without cause and against sudden, steep rent increases.
A state law that takes effect at the end of September has similar protections as the Bellingham law and also offers monetary incentives for landlords who rent to lower-income tenants.
At the federal level, HUD Secretary Ben Carson last week announced an effort to change the mind of landlords who won’t accept vouchers from the 2 million Americans who use the Housing Choice Voucher Program, also known as Section 8.
Recipients include mothers fleeing domestic violence with their children, the elderly, military veterans, disabled people and the working poor.
New research from the Urban Institute shows that about two-thirds of landlords nationwide reject Section 8 tenants.
Kasandra Richey Boote of Bellingham receives a Section 8 voucher for the two-bedroom Barkley apartment where she lives with her fiance Don DeBeeld and their 6-year-old son Jax.
They’ve been wanting to move to a nicer apartment this year, but just can’t swing it until something changes.
“Financially it’s been a struggle after also losing food stamps when our income went up by $200,” Boote said. “There’s just no real help for people wanting to move. (A new landlord) wanted $1,000 to move in.”
“It’s been a crazy year with also losing Don’s dad and my brother. We are content for the moment. Working on getting our financial situation back on track (and) hopefully within the year we can move,” she said.
Rick Sepler, director of Bellingham’s Department of Planning and Community Development, said continued rent increases are more likely tied to rising real estate prices and the city ‘s razor-thin vacancy rate, which is pegged at 1 percent to 3 percent, rather than a reaction to the new city ordinance.
He said the source-of-income ordinance was just a small part of the city’s multi-faceted approach to solving the housing crisis without adding to urban sprawl by building homes and apartments on every piece of open land.
Several hundred new apartments have been built over the past few years, the city has eased its regulations on backyard cottages and is looking at limits on short-term rentals and making effort to preserve mobile home parks.
But people keep moving to Bellingham — almost 10,000 since 2010, according to census data — and housing construction hasn’t kept pace with growth, at least at the lower end of the income spectrum.
More than 50 percent of Bellingham residents are renters.
“There’s just not a lot of entry-level housing available in the city, that’s the problem,” said Tom Follis, a real estate appraiser and broker in Bellingham.
Bellingham’s poorest residents are being squeezed out by the student market, Follis said.
“(College students) are paying higher rates for what you call entry-level housing,” Follis said. “We’re in such a tight market right now that landlords don’t care as long as the tenant is qualified to rent.”
City Council member April Barker said she’s confident that Bellingham’s broad approach to the crisis will provide relief.
She said city officials soon will be assessing the various neighborhoods to make sure that each part of the city is affordable for residents at a range of income levels.
“We want to make sure that all neighborhoods have access to a variety of housing types,” Barker said.
Barker also noted that the Bellingham Home Fund levy, a property tax of 36 cents for every $1,000 of assessed value, is up for renewal on the Nov. 6 ballot.
Money collected from the tax helps with down payments for home buyers, provides rental assistance and builds housing aimed at low-income residents, among other benefits.
“We could be at the forefront of national issues,” Barker said. “I’m very hopeful.”
The number of children living with Sarah Elisabeth Bede was corrected Aug. 27, 2018.