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Got rent? Here’s the recent housing legislation you should know about.

Recent legislation takes steps toward addressing the Washington housing crisis, but tenants must take action to reap the benefits.

Houses with ‘for-rent’ signs on Garden Street in Bellingham, Wash. on April 12, 2024. Despite rising rents, students like Tori Lehman choose to live in houses like these due to their close proximity to Western’s campus. // Photo by Oren Roberts

Bellingham renters feel like they aren’t getting what they paid for. While it may be the last thing you want to do on a sunny spring day, taking the time to understand the law could give you a leg up on your rent-hiking landlord. 

Tenants like Tori Lehman, a Western student, have experienced unsafe living conditions while their landlords delayed or refused maintenance requests. Recently, Bellingham took steps to address that issue by changing its response to failed rental inspections. 

Legislators have been considering ways to slow the rise of housing costs. Washington House Bill 2114 was proposed to create the first form of rent stabilization in Washington’s history since real estate lobbyists successfully convinced the legislature to ban rent control in 1981. The bill has since died in the State Senate. 

In markets like Bellingham, where the median rent rose by 16.8% in 2023 alone, bills like HB2114 could help prevent people from being priced out of their homes. 

The City of Bellingham enacted Initiative 2023-02 in January, which penalizes landlords for raising rent by more than 8% by requiring them to cover tenants’ relocation costs. 

With the stagnation of HB 2114, Initiative 2023-02 is the closest thing to rent stabilization in Bellingham.

Here’s how these legislative changes affect student renters. 

Potential consequences for landlords whose properties fail code inspection  

The City of Bellingham recently changed the code around rental inspections to address community concerns about rental conditions. In February, the City Council voted unanimously to raise the standards of the City’s Rental Registration and Safety Inspection Program, allowing the City to more effectively enforce code violations. 

For many tenants in Bellingham, high prices don't seem justified when landlords don’t maintain or repair their properties. 

“My options right now are to spend 75% of my paycheck to live with rats, or spend 65% of my paycheck to live in a firebox,” said Tori Lehman, a Western student and renter. Lehman struggled for months to get her landlord to address a fire hazard in her new apartment—which she moved into because her previous building had a rat infestation, among other problems. 

The new code changes will make it easier for the City to take action against landlords who refuse or delay addressing code violations. Previously, a failed inspection only resulted in more inspections. 

“In the past, there was no end game to that piece,” said Blake Lyon, the City’s planning and community development director. “We could go through multiple rounds of re-inspections, and that was posing problems because things weren’t getting resolved in a timely manner.” 

The changes to the code will allow the City to take landlords to court if they don’t comply after three failed re-inspections. Additionally, a single failed inspection will open up the door for the rest of a landlord’s properties to be inspected, according to Lyon. 

While the City is limited in how often it’s legally authorized to inspect units, renters can report code violations at any time, and the City will follow up. 

If a tenant is concerned about a potential violation, Lyon says they can use the SeeClickFix application to request a code violation investigation, which allows the City to address issues more immediately than the three-year inspection cycle allows.

For renters with unresponsive landlords, an investigation request may be the best option. After Lehman sent documentation of her situation to the City, she finally heard back from her landlord, who promptly repaired the windows. 

“The second I proved that I knew my rights and I knew code law, he was like, ‘Oh, we'll fix it for you,’” Lehman said.

That doesn’t mean she’s satisfied with the system, however.

“I shouldn't have to prove that I know my rights for my landlord to abide by them,” she said. 

Rental relocation assistance for Bellingham tenants

Bellingham voters passed Initiative 2023-02 in November, which requires landlords to cover the cost of a tenant’s move when raising rent by 8% or more. 

The initiative, which was introduced by Community First Whatcom, is intended to prevent extreme rent increases that price people out of their homes. The catch: renters have to formally request relocation money from their landlords. 

“If you get a rental increase of 8% or more and you request that assistance, the amount that you would get is equal to three months of fair-market rent, or three months of what you were paying for rent—whichever is higher,” said Andrew Hansen, who works on the steering committee for Community First Whatcom. 

“If you’re paying $2,000 a month and you get an increase that would warrant the relocation assistance, then you would be entitled to three months—$6,000,” Hansen said. The assistance is meant to cover moving costs like security deposits and first and last month’s rent. 

Community First Whatcom brought the initiative to the City Council in July 2023, which was then sent to the ballot in November. According to the Whatcom County Election Division, 62.18% of Bellingham voters cast their ballots in favor of the rental relocation assistance program. However, the City hasn’t diverted resources to enforce it. 

“The enforcement side is mostly going to be through [a] private right of action,” Hansen explained. 

“Private right of action” means that tenants can sue their landlords if they don’t pay up, and landlords can be held liable for tenants’ attorney fees and double the cost of the requested relocation assistance, equivalent to six months’ rent. 

Hansen said it was difficult to devise a concrete enforcement method other than private action because the Initiative process doesn’t allow for changes to the City budget or the establishment of new City departments or positions.

“Knowing that we’re unlikely to get rent stabilization [in the state] this year, I think that we are going to see more municipalities looking at programs like rental relocation assistance,” Hansen said. “We found out that Olympia is considering a rental relocation assistance ordinance that is similar to Bellingham’s.” 

Elsewhere in the state, Tacoma has implemented a relocation assistance program for low-income households. 

“In the coming years, we’re hopeful that we’re gonna see relocation assistance work the way we want,” Hansen said. “It’s a tool that renters will be able to push for, whether it’s through their City Councils or through the initiative process.” 

State-wide rent stabilization 

Rent stabilization laws are currently banned in Washington. House Bill 2114 was the most recent attempt at implementing such a system, passing through the State House in February but losing momentum in the State Senate.

The bill would have made it illegal for landlords to raise rent by 7% or more. There were exceptions for buildings rented out for less than ten years and properties owned by public or nonprofit entities. It would also have prohibited adding extra fees that increase rent above the proposed limit. A Feb. 26 article from the Washington State Standard explains why exactly the bill failed in the State Senate this year. 

“The cost of living is staggering right now,” said Rep. Alicia Rule, addressing a Ferndale town hall on Feb. 17. “It is so challenging to make everything work.”

Homelessness is a serious concern in Bellingham, especially as rents continue to rise. The City says there are at least 742 unhoused people in Whatcom County every night. 

“Statistically, any time rent is raised $100, there's a 9% increase in homelessness,” said Kerri Burnside, an organizer with the Bellingham Tenants Union. 

At the time of publication, Zillow lists Bellingham’s median rent for a one-bedroom as $1,495 and a two-bedroom as $1,870. For someone who pays $1,495 in rent, a 7% increase translates to about an additional $105 per month. 

“While rent stabilization is not the solution [to homelessness], there's no one solution to a very complex issue,” Burnside said. “It will keep people housed. It will slow down how many people are being economically evicted.” 

A revised bill was reintroduced to the State House in March. Renters who want to see the kind of rent stabilization proposed in the bill can contact their state representatives. Western students can find more information on how to contact our regional elected officials here

Affordable housing with private quarters and shared community spaces

Co-housing allows people to have a private living space while sharing a kitchen with a group of other renters. House Bill 1998 passed through the legislature with bipartisan support in February and was signed into law in March, legalizing co-housing across the state. 

Co-housing arrangements, also known as boarding houses or rooming houses, are already legal under Bellingham’s municipal code. However, the creation of more co-housing options could address one aspect of Washington’s housing crisis. 

“We know that for some folks—whether it’s students, single adults, aging seniors—this is a really great opportunity for them to stay in their communities close to where they work, go to school or seek connection with community,” said Rep. Mia Gregerson, a co-sponsor of the bill, addressing the House Housing Committee on January 8. “It’s definitely an affordable way to be able to continue to live in a healthy, small home.” 

Unlike the traditional house-sharing situations that many student renters are familiar with, co-housing is defined by locked, separate sleeping spaces and often features private bathrooms. The bill also exempts co-housing from parking requirements, which Dan Bertolet, an urban planner testifying in favor of the bill on behalf of the Sightline Institute, said will reduce the cost of rent. 

“I know this may sound too simplified, but this really is a case of choosing low-cost homes for people or storage for cars,” said Bertolet. 

We have yet to see the direct impacts of each of these legislative changes. However, they all indicate that law-makers are bringing a diverse array of solutions to potentially address the housing crisis.

Oren Roberts

Oren Roberts (they/them) is a city news reporter this quarter at The Front. They are a third-year completing an interdisciplinary concentration in Trauma-Informed Journalism through Fairhaven College. They fill their free time with fermentation projects, paddleboarding and tending to their houseplants. You can contact them at

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