The state of Bellingham’s student housing market has both renters and city officials worried, as rent prices around Bellingham have risen up to 32 percent in the past five years, and students searching for housing encounter critically low vacancy rates.
“I would regard what we have in Bellingham right now as a housing crisis — an affordable housing crisis,” Bellingham City Councilmember Daniel Hammill said.
Junior Connor Duffy said the cost of housing in Bellingham has left him struggling with bill payments.
“Ever since I moved here, I’ve been using a credit card to pay for everything,” Duffy said.
Working at least 20 hours a week at Pizza Hut, Duffy routinely pays around 50 percent of his income in rent. Anyone paying more than 30 percent of their income in rent is considered financially burdened, according to the US Census Bureau.
“I eat a lot of ramen,” Duffy said.
The financial burden of his $500 a month rent has also prevented him from saving any money.
“Even if my rent was $200 less [than it is] now, that’d be $200 that I could save,” Duffy said.
Although the Sehome neighborhood, where Duffy lives, isn’t receiving the largest rent increases in Bellingham, it still has seen an average rent increase of around 15 percent over the last five years, according to Zillow, an online real estate database. In other neighborhoods around Western, the average rent increased 13 – 32 percent.
Over the same period, national median rent increased by 10 percent, according to Zillow.
Of neighborhoods around Western, South Hill has seen the steepest increase, averaging a $460 total increase over the last 5 years, according to Zillow.
“The housing supply just can not meet the demand,” Assistant Manager at Painless Properties Sarah Rosenberger said.
Councilmember Hammill agrees, citing Bellingham’s rental vacancy rate, or the percentage of available housing units in the area. Bellingham’s vacancy rate is currently 0.3 percent
“[Rent rates] would probably start leveling out, but I would not expect them to go down unless something drastic happened.”
Kimberly Servoss, director of property management at Landmark Real Estate Management
“Most housing experts regard a [healthy vacancy rate] to be between 3 percent and 5 percent, 5 percent benefiting renters and 3 percent benefiting landlords,” Hammill said. “0.3 [percent] is absolutely a crisis.”
Kimberly Servoss, the director of property management at Landmark Real Estate Management, blames the recession for the current situation.
“There wasn’t a lot of new building going on, for economic reasons, in the last 5 years,” Servoss said, “that we ended up with a major shortage of availability, so the demand [has gone up].”
Senior Rebecca Ouk, who works at the Associated Students Legal Affairs office, handles landlord-tenant issues related to the low vacancy rate.
“People don’t have as many options, and [landlords] know that housing needs to be filled,” Ouk said. “So, they’ll usually try to have substandard housing for a lot of students.”
That was a problem for Jensina Sundberg, a sophomore majoring in environmental studies. The house she rented with two friends had no storm weathering, the windows were all single pane and the doors didn’t shut.
“We froze in the winter because we couldn’t afford [the heat],” Sundberg said. “We’d wake up and it’d be 40 degrees in the room.”
Running the heat for a month would have cost them over $100 each, adding additional costs to their already strained budget, Sundberg said.
Students are not the only ones affected by the housing shortage. Hammill said he is worried about the impact on seniors and those experiencing homelessness. Whatcom County’s 2015 Point-In-Time Count found 17.7 percent increase in the homeless population from 2014.
“The case managers who work with the most vulnerable [populations] are finding it more and more difficult to find housing for their clients,” Hammill said.
One possible solution Hammill pointed to is the Housing Levy. Approved by voters in 2012, the levy puts $3 million a year toward affordable housing. However, a number of factors would determine whether students would qualify for units designated as affordable housing, including whether they were receiving financial support from their parents.
Additionally, the units backed by the housing levy operate on a waitlist system. Currently, the shortest wait time to become a resident in one of these properties is one and a half years. The longest wait time is 11.5 years for a one bedroom apartment in Varsity Village, south of campus.
The program currently estimates there are 15,000 rental units in Bellingham.
Despite rental issues, demand for on-campus housing has remained flat over the last 5 years, according to Leonard Jones, director of university residences.
“It’s a natural thing for students to want more independence,” Jones said. “Campus housing is a nice, transitional entry point for our students.”
However, Servoss notes that in her eight years at Landmark, she has never seen rental rates go down.
“[Rent rates] would probably start leveling out, but I would not expect them to go down unless something drastic happened,” Servoss said.
In the meantime, the Bellingham City Council has attempted to address issues related to the low vacancy rate with a rental inspection program. The program requires rentals in Bellingham to be registered with the city and inspected every three years.