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Who is to blame for rent increases? Bellingham landlords speak on why student rental prices keep rising

A "For Rent" sign stands outside a house on North Garden Street. Hammer Properties owner Mike Hays said landlords can make more by renting to students. // Photo by Harrison Amelang

By Schuyler Shelloner
Framed by rugged mountaintops, with picturesque islands dotting its bay and craft breweries on practically every corner, it’s no wonder so many people want to move to Bellingham. But affordable homes have been in short supply and rentals are scarce, too. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Bellingham’s apartment vacancy rate in 2017 was a mere 3.4 percent. According to rentalpropertyreporter.com, an online resource for landlords and property managers, a vacancy rate under 5 percent is great for landlords, but not so good for renters. In an online survey conducted by The Western Front, large rent increases and maintenance issues were the main complaints made by the more than 40 people who responded. But for junior Nick Spevak, neither rents nor broken faucets were big concerns. “A lot of my bad experiences here haven’t been the places themselves, it’s been trying to find a place,” he said. Spevak said he had to pay approximately $70 for a non-refundable application fee for an apartment leased by Windermere Property Management. He said he never heard back from them about the place. According to Taylor Assink, office manager at Windermere Property Management, Windermere charges a $40 application fee and a $25 co-signer fee when applicable, both of which are non-refundable. Since non-refundable fees for applications and co-signers are fairly common property management practices in Bellingham and elsewhere, finding rentals can be an expensive process.   Spevak currently rents from a private landlord and pays $450 for a basement room in a house he shares with three roommates. He said it’s more affordable than the other apartments that he’s rented in Bellingham, but still much more expensive than anywhere else he’s lived.
“Even Pittsburgh, it’s like $400 for a studio apartment downtown, and it’s a pretty hip city now,” Spevak said. “Out here, it’s insanely expensive. This place isn’t as bad as Seattle, but I paid $880 for a studio apartment in downtown Bellingham. This isn’t Manhattan, this is a small town.” Mike Hays, owner of Hammer Properties, said low vacancy rates are to blame for high rents. If supply is low and demand is high, rents will continue to climb. There’s little that can be done besides building more houses, Hays said. Hays started Hammer Properties with the intention of renting to students, a good investment, he said, because many students receive help from their parents with living expenses. Most of the properties Hammer manages are in the Sehome neighborhood, close to Western. Hays said vacancy rates near campus are close to zero, lower than anywhere else in the city. “We have families that are looking for houses, and we have students that are looking for houses,” Hays said. “The students, for the most part, will pay more than the families can. If it’s a six-bedroom house, you’re talking $3,000 a month. A family’s not gonna rent a house for $3,000. Students, the way they look at it, it’s just $500 for a room. As high as our rent prices are, it’s still cheaper than the dorms.” According to the Western University Residences website, a standard single unshared room in a residence hall without a meal plan costs $8,725 this academic year, approximately $970 per month. A single unshared room in Birnam Wood costs approximately $840 per month, or $7,545 for the academic year without a meal plan. Kurt Willis, associate director of University Services, said residence halls and campus-owned apartments come furnished, with utilities, internet, cable TV, laundry, toiletries, restroom custodial services, security patrols, safety escorts and other staffing included in the rent. He said Western’s campus housing does not require first and last month’s rent to be paid up front, and the $200 deposit is almost always returned in full. Students who stay the whole nine months may also stay over winter and spring break at no additional charge, Willis said. Although it may be cheaper to find a room off campus, many of those interviewed for this article still complained about high rents. Students or renters aren’t the only people struggling to find affordable housing. Would-be homeowners also have a hard time finding affordable homes in Bellingham. Executive Director Dean Fearing said in an email statement for a previous Front article that there’s a lack of starter homes for purchase in Bellingham, which are homes under $350,000. He said those individuals who would otherwise want to buy are forced to rent, which raises vacancy rates. Local landlord, property investor and Western alumna Debbie Turk purchased her last investment house in the York neighborhood for $160,000 in 2010. According to Zillow, the median home value in the York neighborhood is currently just under $392,800. While Turk isn’t looking to buy any more properties, she said she’s hanging on to her assets, which include ten rental units in downtown Bellingham. Turk said she’s had to raise rents to cover rising insurance and utility costs, as well as the landlord licensing fee, but not more than a 5 percent increase per year.  When she can be sure she’s paid all her expenses, Turk doesn’t like to charge more than what she pays for her own mortgage, she said. “We have incurred more expenses, but my approach, even though I know I could charge more rent, is it’s better to have good tenants who can afford to be there, instead of just having people filter through and beat on the place,” Turk said. Turk also runs Blossom Management, a commercial property management company owned by former Mayor Ken Hertz. One of the companies the agency manages is called Workstudios, which offers commercial space for lease to local small businesses and startups. Hertz said he does not raise rents for these spaces - he wants to help the small businesses that rent from him thrive. He isn’t motivated by profits. “A landlord that only wants to maximize income and doesn’t give a rat’s diddle about anything else, they can double their rent,” Hertz said. “People don’t want to blame the landlord, but the landlord’s going to get as much out of it as possible. That’s the bottom line.”

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