High rent costs continue to be a struggle for Bellingham residents due to several factors, including low vacancy rates.
On average, a 776 square-foot apartment in Whatcom County costs $1,311, according to the Fall 2021 Washington State Apartment Market Report. This averages out to $1.57 per square foot of floor area.
Apartment vacancy rates play an important role in the increasing rental prices in Whatcom County. According to the Washington Center for Real Estate, Whatcom County had a vacancy rate of around 1% for all apartment units in their most recent report for fall 2021.
Brien Thane, CEO of the Bellingham Housing Authorities, said vacancy rates in Bellingham were unhealthy even before the pandemic started.
“Availability of rental units is a significant related challenge as vacancy rates continue around 2% or less, depending on unit size,” Thane said. “A balanced market would be in the 5% to 7% vacancy range.”
Kathryn Bartholomew, a development specialist for the city of Bellingham, explained what vacancy rates are and why they’re so important.
“The vacancy rate is the percentage of units that are not rented at a given point in time,” Bartholomew said. “When there are very few units vacant, like there are now, then there is lots of competition for the units that are available and property owners can raise rents steeply because they know that someone will be willing to rent the unit, even if a current tenant decides to move out.”
As a result, renters are starting their hunts further and further in advance, with some even going so far as to decide on a place before viewing it in person.
Quinn Zimmerman, a student at Western Governors University, was one of these people. She moved to Bellingham at the end of November from Ione.
“Bellingham can only get so big,” Zimmerman said. “I feel like every corner there's an apartment complex and I called every apartment complex and they were completely booked out.”
After landing a job in Bellingham that started in early December, she was left with only two weeks to find a place.
“I stumbled across the apartment that I found and I loved it, but the picture of the apartment that was posted was not the apartment that I even got,” Zimmerman said. “I signed the lease before I even looked at the unit.”
She said she was given the option of signing the lease without seeing the unit in person, or making the eight hour drive to view it and then signing. Since there was another person interested in the unit and she didn’t want her best option so far to be taken, she signed.
Skye Crozier of Pacific Continental Realty said that in the last few years she has seen an increase in applicants who want to be approved and lease spaces before touring them.
“I think this started to happen a lot more right at the beginning stages of the pandemic and has only become more prevalent since then,” Crozier said.
For those who are searching for a space without roommates, as Zimmerman was, the search has been slightly harder.
Julia Burns, program manager of Western Washington University’s office of off-campus living, offers renting advice to students. She said she has noticed more students having trouble finding studios or one bedroom apartments recently.
“I do feel like there have been a lot of students struggling to find housing this year,” Burns said.
Kim Huizenga, director of property management at Landmark Real Estate Management, said there are a couple of reasons why single bedroom units seem to be less common than multiple bedroom units.
“It is more cost-effective to build five units with multiple bedrooms as opposed to 10 single-occupancy units,” Huizenga said. “The cost is in the kitchen and bathrooms. Bedrooms are cheap to construct. Also, a landlord collects more rent as the bedroom count increases.”
She said housing supply is extremely low due to construction costs, available land, permitting, supply chain delays and homeownership becoming less affordable.
The city is trying to improve the vacancy rate by densifying the city to reduce the cost of land per housing unit.
“Increasing density, meaning fitting more homes into urban areas that already have those services like sidewalks and power, is one strategy to increase housing supply and keep costs down,” Bartholomew said. “The more housing we have, the less the price of housing increases due to competition.”
To find more information about what the city is doing check out the City of Bellingham community planning resources.
Ben Larson (he/him) is a reporter on the city news beat for The Front this quarter. He is a visual journalism major and when he isn't reporting he enjoys the outdoors and horror movies. You can reach him at email@example.com.
Emily Paulson (she/her) is a senior reporter for The Front this quarter. She is a sophomore currently pursuing a double major in journalism specifically news/ed track and in accounting. Emily focuses her reporting on the Bellingham waterfront and other city news stories. Outside of journalism, Emily plays on the Western softball team, enjoys watching sports, spending time with friends and working on her podcast.
Her instagram is @empaulson22