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Cost of living outstrips income for seniors

Eleanor Apartment residents speak out against Mercy Housing’s rent increases

Eleanor Apartments in downtown Bellingham, built in 2017 for a total cost of 22 million dollars. The recent cost of living increases has made it difficult for seniors to make ends meet. // Photo by Connor O'Boyle

Eleanor Apartments, opened in 2017, was built with the intention to be highly efficient, low cost and low energy affordable housing for seniors using city, state and charity funds. Residents of the Eleanor Apartments have a large list of grievances against Mercy Housing, the non-profit organization that owns the complex. 

“We’ve had five rent increases during six years. My rent has increased 31% going from $612.00 to $800.00,” said Patty Dawn, a resident of the Eleanor Apartments, in an email to the Bellingham City Council.

According to the residents, the at-the-time building manager claimed the increases were due to needing to make repairs and the company had no money to pay for them.

“They’re saying that they’ve told different people that they have sympathy for us,” said resident Stan Betts, who spoke to the former building manager. “But there’s no other source of cash.” 

Why was rent increased?

"Capital repairs (building infrastructure) have been or will be paid from sources other than general property operations and do not impact rent increases,” Mercy Housing Northwest President Joe Thompson said in an email. “This confusion arises from an erroneous statement made by a former employee.”

Despite claims that repairs are not made via income from rent increases, building maintenance has been cited as a major cost of keeping the buildings running, which is why rent prices have been raised.

In Bellingham, affordable housing does have limits on how high rent can be raised. These rents are based primarily on the area median income of Whatcom County and are split into several brackets depending on what percentage of the AMI an individual or household earns.

Thompson said that though the former building manager had incorrectly included that as part of the justification for the rental increase, the increases were simply due to increases in maintenance cost.

"For our buildings to be sustainable and to operate as community assets in the long run, our revenue really needs to keep pace with operating expenses that continue to escalate, in line with the market," said Ellen Lohe, the associate director of real estate development at Mercy Housing, at the  April 10 Bellingham City Council meeting.

Impacts of the rent increases

“Numerous residents are now paying over 50% of their income for rent,” Dawn said. “Some residents have been forced into a position where they are currently paying 60% of their income for rent.”

Likewise, she noted that around a quarter of residents at the complex have resorted to obtaining rent support from an outside source; in particular, many residents were relying on the Opportunity Council in Bellingham. 

“This assistance is literally keeping seniors from being homeless. However, this financial assistance ends in June,” she said.

Other residents spoke up about the lack of maintenance at their building and their anger toward how the organization has treated them.

“Is the building as a whole unsafe? Probably not, but there are code violations” said Betts. This complaint added to additional complaints from Dawn and other residents about failing concrete and leaking water in the building.

Despite existing limits on maximum rent designed to prevent homelessness, the statements made by Eleanor Apartments residents suggest the idea that the existing laws have not successfully protected them.

According to a 2021 profile of older Americans from the Administration for Community Living, an operating division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 76% of renters aged 65 and over spend more than one-third of their income on housing.

(2) Cost of living outstrips income for seniors

A bar graph showing the expected population growth of people who are 65 or older. The number of seniors in the US is predicted to rise sharply over the coming decades, raising questions over whether the country has the infrastructure and support they will need. // Image courtesy of the U.S. Census Bureau

The median household income for renters age 65 and over was $18,280 in 2020, which is under 30% of the median national income for all ages, according to a report from the U.S. census bureau.

With older Americans being a growing and economically vulnerable population, problems like those facing the residents at Eleanor Apartments will likely only continue to appear.

Joshua Grambo

Joshua Grambo (he/him) is a campus news reporter and journalism/news editorial major in his second year at Western. Outside of the Front, Joshua enjoys reading, playing dungeons and dragons, spending time with family, and working on craft projects. You can reach him at

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