Bellingham City Council invited community feedback to address affordable housing during a town hall meeting on Nov. 14. Community members had the opportunity to voice their concerns and propose potential solutions to the city’s lack of housing affordability and availability.
Multiple community members pointed out the part Western Washington University plays in the city’s housing crisis by externalizing student housing onto the community instead of providing sufficient on-campus housing. As a result, the rent prices go up, and the amount of housing available becomes limited.
Councilmember Lisa Anderson echoed these concerns and said that Western has a responsibility to create more housing for their students to help solve housing affordability and availability. According to Anderson, Western currently externalizes students onto a predatory, for-profit housing market.
“They have the land to do it so build the housing,” Anderson said.
If Western were to build an affordable student housing option and remove a portion of students from Bellingham’s rental market, that could greatly impact the city’s rental prices and availability, Anderson said.
Director of University Residences Leonard Jones said in an email that Western has no plans for building additional student housing in the near future.
“This is dependent upon housing demand and/or financial considerations,” Jones said.
Alma Clark Glass Hall, Western’s newest dorm completed in 2020, houses 413 students.
Anderson, who works at Whatcom Community College, pointed to WCC as an example for Western to strive toward emulating. Despite not receiving funding from the state for housing, WCC built affordable on-campus housing for their students by creating a partnership with a private construction company and agreeing to pay the costs over time. The decision to implement on-campus housing came as a result of students saying affordable housing was their biggest concern.
First-year Hayden Haller, a Western student who lives in Buchanan Towers, plans to move off campus next quarter and into an apartment due to it being a more affordable option than living in his current residence hall.
“I did a breakdown of the dorm pricing for Buchanan, and it’s like $1,700 a month with a meal plan and $1,400 or $1,300 without the meal plan,” Haller said. “We don’t want to pay that much.”
Haller recently signed a lease for a two-bedroom apartment off campus where he will be paying $800 a month.
Anderson said that when it comes to seeing a change and having Western build more affordable housing options, the impetus of the student body is what it’s going to take for the university to take action.
“It’s going to take the students really pushing and driving [Western’s administration] like they did at Whatcom,” Anderson said. “The students’ voice is the most important voice in order to get this achieved ... and if that’s not a vision the students have, then it probably won’t ever happen.”
Nina Walsh (she/her) is a city news reporter for The Front. She studies political science and journalism.
You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.