Will Whatcom Community College’s new dorm help ease Bellingham’s housing shortage?

Whatcom Community College started construction of its first on-campus housing this September. The $28-million project will house 230 to 240 students. It is expected to be ready for students in August 2020.
Whatcom Community College started construction of its first on-campus housing this September. The $28-million project will house 230 to 240 students. It is expected to be ready for students in August 2020. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

For the first time in its 51-year history, Whatcom Community College is building housing for students on its campus.

Construction started this month on the $28 million project off Cordata Parkway at 204 Short St. It will house 230 to 240 students, who are expected to move in August 2020.

The 89,000-square-foot building will be four stories.

“We’re really excited about this project,” said Nate Langstraat, the college’s vice president for Administrative Services. “It’s been a long time coming in terms of students expressing their desire for this, coupled with the fact that there is market demand.”

“We have been discussing and pursuing various options and ideas since 2012,” Langstraat said. “This project, in particular, will forever change the DNA of campus as we move to a residential campus.”

The building is on part of eight acres owned by the college and may be the first of about three phases that could eventually bring more student housing to its Bellingham campus.

A bond is financing the project, and the college will use rental income to pay it off over 25 years.

Living space in the dorm will be laid out as furnished apartments — ranging from four bedrooms, two bedrooms, one bedroom and studios. Each unit will have bathrooms and kitchens.

The college already leases apartments in private complexes that are within two miles of the campus, which it then leases to its students. Those furnished spaces total 164 beds.

Whatcom hasn’t decided whether it will hang onto those apartments, according to Langstraat.

“We’re still having internal discussions around that,” he said. “One of the indicators for us will be the strength of applications for the lease-up period.

Everson-based Tiger Construction and Ankrom Moisan Architects, which has an office in Seattle, are working on the project.

Whatcom Community College is the latest to construct more student housing in Bellingham. Other projects have been led by private developers building off-campus.

Two major projects — Gather Bellingham at 900 N. Forest St. and NXNW near the Lakeway Fred Meyer — added nearly 1,100 beds in the past two years.

Another residential development, called Western Edge, will house about 486 students at 903-929 N. State St., in two six-story apartment buildings.

An artist rendering of what Western Edge might look like from the northeast. The proposal calls for two six-story buildings that would have 486 beds for student housing. City of Bellingham Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

The housing for students, as well as other apartments proposed for the King Mountain area and the former JC Penney building downtown, could help ease what has been an incredibly tight housing market in Bellingham, where renters have struggled with extremely low vacancy rates and corresponding increases in rents.

Currently, rental vacancy rates range from less than 1 percent up to 2 percent in the city, depending on the type of housing, according to Tom Follis, a real estate appraiser and broker in Bellingham.

A healthy market for vacancy, one that allows renters some choice, is about 5 percent, he said.

If the proposed projects are built and demand holds steady or decreases, according to Follis, available housing could increase — allowing rent to stabilize and perhaps even drop.

That might happen in the next year or two, he said, provided that the county’s population stays the same, along with the student enrollment at Western Washington University and Whatcom Community College.

“Supply always chases demand,” Follis said. “It’s going to be a function of how quickly supply can increase to offset the demand.”

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.

Whatcom Community College has about 11,000 students, with 6,832 of them earning credits.

Western expects to have more than 15,900 students this fall, with nearly 4,100 students moving into the university’s residence halls and apartments this weekend, as classes start Sept. 26. Fall is when student demand for housing is greatest.

Western houses about 90 percent of the new freshmen and about 30 percent of new transfer students.

The university may build more student housing on its Bellingham campus but those plans are preliminary, according to spokesman Paul Cocke.

“From time to time through the years, as there has been the need, typically during peak residency during fall quarter, UR (University Residences) has leased additional space off campus,” Cocke said, “and that also may be an option this fall as well.“

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea