Official Ballot Title:
City of Bellingham Initiative 2023-02 concerns the adoption of a rental relocation assistance program for tenants. This measure would require landlords to provide written notice 120 days before increasing rent by more than 8% in a rolling 12-month period; require landlords to pay relocation assistance equal to three times the current fair market monthly rent for Bellingham or three times the tenant’s existing monthly rate, whichever is higher, when increasing rent more than 8%, with limited exceptions; provide tenants receiving assistance a relocation period of 5 months; and authorize private actions and city enforcement.
Should this measure be enacted into law? Yes/No
A Beacon of Hope for Affordable Housing in Bellingham
Bellingham, renowned for its breathtaking landscapes and vibrant culture, faces an unsettling truth: renting a home has become a vanishing luxury for many, including seniors, fixed-income individuals, and families with children. In this housing crisis, Initiative #2 emerges as a glimmer of hope, dispelling myths and extending a much-needed helping hand to our community.
Confronting the Housing Affordability Crisis and Ensuring Rent Stability:
In May, the city unveiled its comprehensive housing plan, laying bare a grim reality. It revealed that a staggering 56 percent of Bellingham’s renters grapple with being “cost-burdened,” devoting over 30 percent of their income to housing expenses. This isn’t a matter of choice; it’s a daily uphill battle for many of our fellow residents. With 55 percent of Bellingham homes rented, as per the 2022 census, guaranteeing rent stability is imperative. This measure aims to shield renters from abrupt, unmanageable spikes in their housing costs, providing them with the assurance of a secure home.
Alarming Rise in Homelessness and Inadequate Assistance for Growing Needs:
The Point in Time (PIT) count reported a staggering 27 percent surge compared to the previous year. Even more alarming is the distressing 141 percent escalation in homelessness among seniors since 2019. These numbers underscore the pressing nature of our housing crisis. HUD delivers a disheartening statistic: only 25 percent of eligible individuals receive assistance in Bellingham. This implies a significant segment of our community wrestles with financial hardships, striving to maintain not just shelter but also their livelihoods.
The Cascade Effect of Rising Rents and The Staggering Cost of Displacement:
Research paints a troubling picture of a domino effect — for every $100 increase in median rent, homelessness surges by a distressing 9 percent. This devastating cycle fuels the expansion of the homeless population, straining social services and impacting the entire community. Once someone becomes homeless, the cost of rehousing skyrockets. This not only burdens public resources but also inflicts immeasurable harm on individuals and families, leaving scars that can endure a lifetime.
A Ray of Hope and A Call to Action: Support Initiative #2:
In the face of these grim statistics, Initiative #2 emerges as a beacon of hope. This initiative offers a tangible solution to our housing crisis by aiding those confronting exorbitant rent hikes as well as a fair and balanced framework for landlords. This initiative stands as a pivotal step in preventing homelessness and extends a lifeline to renters in dire need. As residents of Bellingham, we share a collective duty to confront this housing crisis head-on. Initiative #2 represents a significant stride in the right direction.
The housing crisis is an undeniable reality that demands our immediate attention. Initiative #2 provides a compassionate and pragmatic response to the challenges renters face in our city. By casting our votes in favor of this initiative, we can strive to preserve Bellingham as a place where everyone can genuinely afford to call home. Vote YES for Initiative #2!
Statement prepared by:
Kerri Burrnside, a Bellingham native and the SBNA President, passionately advocates for the belief that every person’s inherent right is to embrace a joyful life uniquely their own. She firmly stands by the conviction that as responsible citizens, it’s our duty to eliminate the barriers that prevent others from experiencing that fulfilling life.
Costs of living are rising everywhere for everyone, a situation impacting tenants primarily in the form of rising rent. Cost increases for goods and services are complex with many facets; however, rent discussions seem to focus on “greedy” landlords with no consideration of other factors. Rental housing recovering from the eviction moratorium and tenants not paying rent, new statutory requirements on rental property owners, and extraordinary costs for maintenance labor and material is making rental housing more expensive. Is a “rent cap” the answer? Not if we are serious about helping renters.
The argument for Bellingham Initiative 2, a proposal to “cap” rent increases in a 12-month period to 8 percent, among other details, is the assertion that rents are rising at double digit percentages. That assertion is no longer true. Property owners recovering from the unprecedented financial impact from Covid-19 restrictions had no choice but to raise rents as mitigation for their losses. Now, two years later, Bellingham’s rental vacancy rate is the highest in years near 3 percent (5 percent is “normal”) and rents have stabilized.
The rising vacancy rates and steady rents are the result of the multifamily building boom in Bellingham. Anyone driving down the streets of Bellingham has seen extensive construction, construction that the City of Bellingham now touts as resulting in a housing surplus. Bellingham’s 2022 buildable lands report details that the city has a couple thousand more units than is necessary to house the city’s population. Excess supply, we are all taught, leads to falling prices, the exact situation we are witnessing now with some renter incentives and rent concessions in the newer developments.
If we want to help renters and work toward affordable housing for all, we need to stop focusing on gimmicks and address the causes of housing inequity. Initiative 2, while providing immediate relief, ultimately works to the detriment of renters. First, it caps rental income for property owners without corresponding caps on expenses. Put simply, rents reflect the costs incurred by an owner including mortgage payments, maintenance, taxes, and property management fees. As costs increase, the rental rate must keep pace ensuring owners cover expense providing that unit for rent. If rents do not keep up, rentals get sold. Less supply means higher costs.
Rental caps, and the associated financial penalties, also cause problems with housing construction. Financing expensive multifamily projects is based on the income such a development will produce. If a “rent cap” constrains the net income of a project, that project becomes “risky,” leading to construction uncertainty increasing the likelihood that a project will not be built. Again, less available housing for an increasing population means higher rents.
Bellingham renters need real solutions. Likewise, rental property owners need assurance that providing rental housing will not lead to losses. The long-term solution is housing planning focused on the population’s needs, housing for everyone and not election cycle promises guarding neighborhood character. Our character is better reflected in safe, affordable housing for all our citizens.
Statement prepared by
Perry Eskridge, a licensed attorney, is the government affairs director for both the Whatcom County Association of REALTORS® and the Building Industry Association of Whatcom County. The views expressed are his alone and do not reflect the views of either organization.