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Younger renters struggle to make ends meet

In a time where Bellingham has scarce affordable housing, young residents face many challenges

A “For Rent” sign is posted in front of the Maplewood West Apartment complex on Maplewood Avenue in Bellingham, Wash., on Jan. 19, 2023.  // Photo taken by Tristyn MacDonald

If you’re struggling to find affordable housing, you’re not alone. As Bellingham’s population continues to grow, young renters face a housing crisis stemming from building limitations and a lack of rental properties. 

“We have not been building enough new housing units to keep up with the growth in population,” said Brien Thane, executive director of Whatcom County and Bellingham Housing Authorities. 

Thane said housing supply is low, while demand is high. 

“The owner gets tired of managing the rental property, and they put it on the market,” he said. “Which is great, but it’s reducing the supply of student housing in town.” 

Affordable housing can be defined as paying a maximum of 30% of the household's monthly income, including utilities and other expenses for renters. 

For student tenants like Robin Hall, who rents a house in Bellingham with four other people, a minimum wage income isn’t always enough to keep up with this rise in rent prices.

“Not all of us have steady jobs right now and my income, at least for the past couple months, hasn’t been enough to make rent,” Hall said. 

Another student renter, Ari Au, faces a similar issue living in Lark Bellingham. 

“I make roughly $1,200 a month for income. Rent is $879. Not affordable,” Au wrote in an email. “It’s really hard to decide to stay here in Bellingham. I worked full-time in Bellingham for a year before attending Western, and I’m considering taking time off school to do that again because of how expensive rent is getting.”

Living in a desirable area comes at a cost and current homeowners often don’t want to see the neighborhood change in favor of more apartment complexes. 

“You’ve got a lot of resistance from homeowners,” said Brandon Nelson, owner of the Brandon Nelson Partners real estate firm. “It’s people who already own here and love that quality of life here and say, ‘I don’t want a multi-family home on my street.’” 

Nelson said some people believe that enforcing rent control is the answer. But in Washington, that’s not an option.

“There cannot be what’s called rent control, Washington has made that illegal,” said Edwin “Skip” Williams, a member of the Bellingham City Council, referring to Washington Legislature RCW 35.21.830

Williams believes the best option is to start working on inclusionary zoning. Since the city can’t expand much outward without running into the shoreline or mountains, this would be the most realistic long-term solution.

“Inclusionary zoning is where you build an apartment complex and there are so many units in the apartment building that are made affordable,” Williams said. “I do know that finding a way to provide these housing options is very, very important.” 

To learn more about how the City of Bellingham is addressing rising housing prices, you can visit the Housing FAQs on the COB website.

Tristyn MacDonald

Tristyn (she/they) is a city life reporter for The Front. They are planning on majoring in visual journalism. This is her second-year at Western. In Tristyn’s free time, they enjoy thrift shopping, being outside, going to music festivals and hanging out with her roommate’s cats. 

You can reach them at 

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