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Minimum wage hike, renter relocation assistance up to voters

Bellingham November ballot initiatives could boost affordability

Members of Community First Whatcom bring petitions for tenant protections and a higher minimum wage June 20 to Bellingham City Hall. The initiatives will be up to voters on the ballot this November.
Members of Community First Whatcom bring petitions for tenant protections and a higher minimum wage June 20 to Bellingham City Hall. The initiatives will be up to voters on the ballot this November. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
By Ralph Schwartz Staff Reporter

Two initiatives on Bellingham’s fall ballot would combat escalating rental housing costs and give a boost to the city’s lowest wage earners.

Proponents of initiatives 1 and 2, appearing on the Nov. 7 ballot, say they are intended to make Bellingham more affordable. Critics say the measures — a minimum-wage increase and relocation assistance for renters — will do more harm than good.

If approved, Initiative 1 would raise the minimum wage by $1 over the state rate on May 1, 2024, and then boost the city’s minimum wage to $2 above the state’s minimum in May 2025. Washington’s minimum wage is $15.74 and increases with inflation every year. 

Initiative 2 would require a landlord to pay tenants the equivalent of three-months rent to help them relocate, if the landlord raises the tenants’ rent by more than 8%.

The initiatives are intended “simply to address the growing unaffordability of Bellingham, by enabling our community, who already lives and works here, to stay here if they choose,” said Seth Mangold, vice chair of Community First Whatcom, the organization that advanced both measures.

“Housing costs are directly correlated with the rising homeless population,” Mangold added. “We’re working to stem that tide as well.”

Guy Occhiogrosso and Doug Engerman, who wrote the “con” statement in the Whatcom County Voters’ Pamphlet, said the minimum-wage hike would hurt businesses and employees both.

“A $2/hour wage increase on top of the state’s growing minimum wage will only lead to price increases in basic goods and services, and/or fewer hours for employees,” Occhiogrosso and Engerman wrote. 

Occhiogrosso is president and CEO of the Bellingham Regional Chamber of Commerce. Engerman is a business development executive who opened a Cheba Hut franchise in Bellingham in 2022.

If approved by voters in November, Bellingham’s higher minimum wage would only apply to private-sector jobs, meaning city employees would not benefit. 

Perry Eskridge, a lawyer and government affairs director for the Whatcom County Association of Realtors, wrote in the “con” statement for Initiative 2 that landlords would raise rents simply to cover the costs of the new burden provided by the relocation assistance mandate.

Community First Whatcom has received $2,224 in cash contributions in 2023 as of Monday, Sept. 25, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission. The organization also has $69,727 left over from donations it received in 2021, when it was known as People First Bellingham. 

The Group Health Foundation, now called Inatai Foundation, donated $80,000 to People First Bellingham in 2021. That year, the local group put four initiatives on Bellingham ballots. Two passed: restrictions on police technology and a prohibition on the use of city funds for anti-union activities. Measures providing renter relocation assistance and pay raises to wage workers during states of emergency both failed.

Community First Whatcom has spent $39,677 in 2023 as of Sept. 25, according to the PDC, including $3,665 a month in salary and benefits for campaign director Jace Cotton.

So far, no opposition committees have come forward to spend money on “vote no” campaigns for either initiative. In 2021, a committee called “No on 4” raised $269,000 to oppose the unsuccessful initiative that would have provided $4 pay raises during emergencies.

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