As financial instability is at an all time high, local officials are seeking to ease concerns.
By Seth Stevens
As out-of-work homeowners and renters alike in Bellingham struggle to keep their rent and mortgages paid, the Bellingham City Council calls on Gov. Jay Inslee, requesting the Immediate Rent and Mortgage Relief Program.
The vote on the Rent and Mortgage Relief Resolution received unanimous approval from the Bellingham City Council on Monday, April 13 at the council’s first ever virtual meeting, as local governments across the nation struggle to deal with the financial toll the COVID-19 pandemic is taking on their constituents.
It is important to note that a city council resolution is only a formal expression of the council's opinion, and not an act of legislation.
With a statewide rent moratorium on residential evictions for nonpayment of rent due to COVID-19 already in effect until June 4, the Bellingham City Council pushes for new ways to minimize the financial uncertainty that many are currently facing.
This resolution goes further by requesting an immediate halt on all rent and mortgage payments until Nov.1. This resolution would also not allow any new debt in the forms of interest, late fees and missed payments to accrue over that time period. Those affected by this resolution would not only include dependent college students, but undocumented individuals that didn't qualify for a stimulus check under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.
As mentioned in the resolution’s reasoning, “Four in ten households were already in economic distress before the COVID crisis began. Currently, 48 percent of households in Bellingham are either in poverty or are considered to be income restrained.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Bellingham has one of the highest median rental prices in the state, around $1,000 a month for a one-bedroom apartment.
When asked if the city would begin using their own resources to help ease the financial burden that many are currently grappling with, Councilperson Daniel Hammill stated, “If we were to provide (rent and mortgage) relief city-wide, our system would collapse.” Hammill later stated, “Municipalities budgets are not built to withstand these types of large crises. That’s why we’re reaching out to our state partners and our federal partners for support.”
On March 19, Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood signed an order waiving rent for small businesses and nonprofits leasing city-owned properties for the months of April and May, if the tenants ability to pay their rent is negatively impacted due to COVID-19.
In an email, Sen. Liz Lovelett, who represents a portion of Whatcom County in Washington's 40th Legislative District, expressed her support of Bellingham City Council's efforts. “I am proud to see local governments speaking up for their communities. Our renters, small business owners, and homeowners represent a huge portion of our population and should be protected from undue harm during this crisis,” Sen. Lovelett said in the email.
Hammill, who is also a landlord in Washington, said “I think it's important for all of our local jurisdictions to stand up and ask for relief for their residents at this point ... This is not the time to put our heads down on our desks. This is the time to stand up and ask for more support for people who are struggling.”
Shawn Knabb, an associate professor at Western’s College of Business and Economics, weighed in on the council’s resolution.
“I seriously doubt that there are enough funds coming into Washington at the federal level for relief to cover mortgage and rent payments for the entire state of Washington for the next five months,” Knabb said.
When asked about the $1.5 trillion economic relief package that the council referenced in this resolution, Knabb said, “A lot of those funds were designed to help small businesses stay in business, not for rent and mortgage relief.”
Knabb who is worried about the financial implications that this resolution may have said, “You have to look at both sides of the economic coin; if you freeze rent and mortgage payments, you’re going to significantly reduce the amount of liquidity in the banking system … and you don't want a financial crisis on top of the current health crisis.” Hammill said, “Is it possible? We’re not going to know unless we ask. We have to ask for them to say yes or no.”