Whatcom County’s apartment vacancy rate remains low, rent continues to rise

Apartment vacancy rates remain extremely low and rent continues to rise in Whatcom County, but that could change in the coming year.

Last fall the vacancy rate for apartment units in Whatcom County was at 1.3 percent, well below the state average of 3.6 percent, according to an apartment survey done last September by the Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies at the University of Washington. The average rent for those apartment units surveyed was $846 a month, up $22 from a year earlier.

A healthy vacancy rate for landlords and tenants is between 3 and 5 percent, while a rate below 2 percent usually means potential tenants will have few choices and have to pay more, said Tom Follis, a local real estate appraiser at Wm. T. Follis Realtors.

“I would say it is an unhealthy market right now for tenants,” Follis said.

Not enough apartment units appears to be the main factor, one developers have noticed and are addressing. According to data from the city of Bellingham, building permits were submitted for multi-family projects that totaled $36.5 million in 2014, the highest annual total for that category since 2005. In December alone applications were submitted for 182 units, totaling $19.7 million in project valuation.

New apartments appear to be getting filled quickly. The Cornerstone Building in Barkley Village, which has more than 100 units and was completed last fall, was completely leased within a 30-day period, according to The Barkley Company. Follis said some apartment buildings, particularly in the Fairhaven area, have waiting lists.

If those new projects actually get built, it should ease pressure on supply, said Alon Bassok, research scientist at the Runstad Center. Along with being home to Western Washington University, Whatcom Community College and Bellingham Technical College, the community is dealing with a low affordability index for first-time homebuyers.

“That could be creating some pressure (on apartment availability),” Bassok said.

Whatcom’s average monthly apartment rent is well below the state average, which is $1,139 a month. The average is skewed because of the dominance of the King County market. After King and Snohomish counties, three other counties have higher average apartment rents than Whatcom: Clark ($918 a month), Kitsap ($917), and Thurston ($895). The average apartment rent in Skagit County is $776 a month, according to the survey.

Vacancy rates also are low for other types of rental units, including single-family homes and duplexes, Follis said. Vacancy rates are lowest in Bellingham and Lynden, and a little higher in Blaine, Ferndale and other parts of the county, he said.