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Is Bellingham still affordable for WWU alumni?

As the real estate market gets increasingly competitive, experts and alumni weigh in on what WWU alumni can expect after graduation

Stateside Apartments is a newly built complex in Bellingham, Wash., 2022. WWU alumni have had mixed experiences finding affordable housing after graduating college and remaining in Bellingham, mostly as a result of whether they’re able to secure fitting careers locally. // Photo taken by Elijah Umar and edited by Jack Warren



With Bellingham becoming increasingly desirable and the current economic struggles of the country, students and experts agree that prices haven’t adjusted.  

According to the Western Washington University (WWU) Office of Institutional Effectiveness, the median salary for recent WWU alumni with an undergraduate degree is $33,411. 

“No, there's no chance,” said Brandon Nelson, founder and Realtor of Brandon Nelson Partners Realtors, referring to the affordability of Bellingham’s housing market for WWU alumni. 

According to a survey posted to Reddit, 66.7% of the participants were disappointed with the income of their first job after graduation. 

According to Zumper, the average rental price of a one-bedroom apartment in Bellingham is $1,395 as of Nov. 19, 2022, which increased 17% from 2021. The most affordable neighborhood is currently Cornwall Park. 

“It comes from Bellingham being a very desirable, very aesthetically beautiful and exciting, adventurous outdoor dream paradise place to live,” Nelson said. 

Bellingham has become an increasingly popular vacation spot according to Blake Lyon, director of Community Planning and Development for the City of Bellingham. Homes are frequently bought for vacation rentals found on Airbnb, shortening the supply. 

“You've got people that are moving here with work-from-home capabilities who work for big tech firms and have relocated from California and Seattle,” Nelson said. 

Many components contribute to the rising prices in the real estate market country-wide such as inflation and climbing interest rates. But according to Lyon, Bellingham’s local zoning laws combined with low vacancy rates contribute to a competitive, scarce housing market.

“The more competitive the marketplace is, the more individuals can charge for folks to be able to afford that,” Lyon said. 

Lyon went on to explain the other contributing factors such as COVID-19-related building material supply shortages, laws promoting new environmentally friendly buildings and current home-owners pushing back on developmental plans to scale the population density in order to protect the single family integrity of the neighborhoods. 

“I wouldn't say it's any one thing,” Lyon said. “I think it's a combination of all those things.” 

Julian & Company owner and Realtor Julian Friedman has seen many new apartment projects in the works, all of which are expensive to rent. 

“The cost of rent is the expense of property ownership,” he said. 

Ken Mann, commercial real estate broker at Pacific Continental Realty, property owner and former member of the Whatcom County Council, said there have been some recent multi-family housing projects in the works on Meridian Street and closer to the downtown core on C Street.

“I do see neighborhoods pushing back … they don't like to see multi-family coming into their neighborhood, but that's something that I support, and I advocate for,” Mann said. “I think that's one of the only ways we're gonna get out of the housing shortage that we have.”

According to Mann, construction-related costs like acquiring permits and supplies in Bellingham are very high. 

“Finding a project that will make any kind of financial sense for a developer is getting harder and harder as interest rates go up,” he said.

Mann said he is getting more applicants than ever before and from a broader geographical demographic. 

“[Bellingham] has always been getting just gradually more and more discovered and more and more known nationally and showing up on Best-Places-to-Live lists,” he said.

While alumni have been disappointed with their income, 73.3% of the Reddit survey participants are able to comfortably pay for groceries and rent and 60% have time to enjoy themselves. 

Faith Owens, a Western alumni who majored in Visual Journalism said she struggles to pay rent.

“With every purchase I make, whether it be groceries, clothes or food, I think about the dent that is going to put in my ability to pay rent,” she said. “I’m thankful to have a job that I enjoy and have a community within, but minimum wage is not cutting it right now.”

Judy Roberts, a Western graduate who landed a job at Techtronic Industries as a field sales and marketing representative, said it was challenging to find a job but attributed her success to the time she spent looking.

“Some of my friends had to move back home just because they weren't able to find a job in Bellingham specific to their majors,” Roberts said. “I majored in business, so that category is really broad.” 

While the process of finding a job was hard, Roberts said she has time to enjoy herself and doesn’t worry about paying rent or affording her basic needs. 

Ethan Fenster, a Western graduate who majored in Energy Science and Technology who landed a job in e-commerce, is comfortable and enjoys his work. 

“I'm lucky enough to have a job where I'm actually paid a livable wage. So, it's like I'm getting by but only because I also share a house with three other people,” Fenster said.

Fenster was not surprised by the statistics found in the survey relating to job income disappointment after college. 

“Everyone would like to be making like $30 an hour and working part-time all the time, and that just is not the case,” Fenster said. 

Braden Gustafson, senior appraiser for Gustafson & Associates, thinks that despite low-starting salaries at Western, it’s still great to get a degree. 

“There will be better moments in the future for new graduates to buy a home,” Braden said, responding over email.  

Hansen Group Real Estate Owner John Hansen said, “I would encourage Western students to expand their vision to realize that the skills that they're learning in Bellingham can be used anywhere on the globe.”


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