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Thursday, May 13, 2021

Searching for answers to city housing crisis

Continually climbing rent prices and low vacancy rates are leaving Bellingham renters with few affordable housing options.

“A house down from me wants $1,900 a month just to rent a small two bedroom house. That’s crazy,” Bellingham City Council member Gene Knutson said.

Bellingham’s median rent price for all types of rental units has seen a 15 percent increase in the past five years, according to Zillow, an online real estate database. The Samish Hill and South Hill neighborhoods have seen the largest raise in prices, with median rent going up by 35 percent.

Median monthly rent for all housing types in the city of Bellingham over the past five years. // Graph by Bram Briskorn

In addition to the high prices, only 0.6 percent of rental units are vacant at any given time within the city, according a survey done by the University of Washington Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies in fall 2016. Anything less than 3 percent is considered a housing crisis, according to the report.

The situation has not gone unnoticed by the city.  Knutson said a $21 million home-fund levy from the city was put in place in 2012 to construct more affordable housing. It was slow moving at first, but believes it’s now starting to take shape, he said.

“We want to get a lot more units up,” Knutson said. “We fully understand that the biggest problem in our community right now is that people are having a hard time finding a place to rent.”

Despite the situation, Knutson remains optimistic.

“I’ve lived here all of my life and I’ve seen this happen before,” Knutson said. “I think in the next few years we have an opportunity to really get ahead of this.”

The Bellingham Tenants Union, founded last January, is a group that advocates for safe and affordable housing.

“Millions of dollars of rental assistance goes unused because nobody can find a landlord that will accept it. That’s something that has to be addressed.”

Matt Petryni, member of tenants union

Rheanna Johnston, a member of the tenants union, said increasing rent is the most common issue among renters that she has heard from canvassing.

“We’re not Seattle. Our rent shouldn’t be getting this high,” Johnston said.

Matt Petryni, another member of the tenants union, noted other financial issues renters face, such as application fees.

“You shouldn’t be paying $40 for every single property you look at just to apply to live there,” Petryni said. “By the time you’re done doing that, you might pay $280 and not even get into a place.”

Petryni also said Bellingham residents are often times not able to access federal government funds for housing assistance. The Section 8 Rental Certificate Program is designed to provide low-income residents with funds to rent privately owned properties.

“Millions of dollars of rental assistance goes unused because nobody can find a landlord that will accept it,” Petryni said. “That’s something that has to be addressed.”

Recently, luxury student housing units such as NXNW and Gather Bellingham have opened up, providing more housing for students and freeing up housing elsewhere in the city. Johnston and Petryni agreed, however, that these types of units are not the type of solution the city needs.

“Those facilities add so many things that I would consider unnecessary,” Johnston said. “It makes it unaffordable for a big chunk of students. It’s not really addressing the issue.”

Petryni said he’d really like to see units come onto the market that are affordable, even to students working part time.

“That’s just not realistic for a lot of people,” Petryni said.

The Bellingham Tenants Union is currently working on reaching out to renters to inform them of their rights and political power. They are currently working with the City Council to try and implement a program that would provide renters with tenants’ rights information and voter registration forms.


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