The Bellingham City Council is following the lead taken by our Whatcom County Council in endorsing new state policy that would help stabilize skyrocketing rents, currently under consideration by the Washington Legislature.
Because Washington legislators passed a bill in 1981 that prevents any local government from passing local laws to protect tenants from rent increases, rent stabilization policy is necessary at the state level.
HB 2114 limits the amount landlords can raise rents, helping to address the top priority of Washingtonians and leading legislators — the lack of affordable housing and our growing homelessness crisis. The measure will prevent landlords from issuing excessive rent increases, while still allowing them to set rent at whatever they want between tenancies.
U.S. Census Pulse Survey shows that nearly 500,000 Washingtonians felt pressure to move between May and October 2023 due to a rent increase. Of those, nearly 60% were displaced by the rent increases. These are shocking numbers, but the real tragedy is the human lives that are being impacted.
The rent for my apartment has been hiked every year since the pandemic moratorium [on evictions] was lifted [in 2021]. It went up by $500 a month just in the last year. We have a lot of seniors in my community who live on fixed incomes; three of which went directly into homelessness, forced into living out of their cars.
Even working families can’t keep up with rising rent. According to the National Low-Income Housing Alliance’s 2022 Out Of Reach report, a minimum wage worker in Whatcom County would have to work 1.4 full-time jobs to afford an average two-bedroom fair market rental. And when you are squeezed out by landlords who raise your rent an excessive amount, where can you go? Renting shelter has become a luxury that families can no longer afford.
Even a $100-a-month increase is associated with rising rates of homelessness, according to a GAO report. Take a two-bedroom apartment in Bellingham that’s currently renting for $1,990. A 7% increase in rent each year would mean a $447.83 monthly increase in just three years, bringing rent to $2,437. As they say, “rent eats first” — meaning tenants squeezed by excessive rent hikes are forced to cut back or even go without basic needs like food, health care, and gas to get to work and school.
To those who say we simply need to build housing, renters need solutions now — not decades down the road. Increasing our future supply of housing still leaves the 40% of households who rent today threatened by excessive rent increases, and more supply doesn’t guarantee renters affordable housing now or in the future.
Rent stabilization policy allows landlords to raise the rent, but it prevents excessive rent increases. It also provides renters with predictability so they can plan for rent increases in coming years, while still allowing landlords to make a profit, keep up with costs and have more than enough to make repairs.
Landlords have been making record profits through excessive rent increases, all while enjoying special tax exemptions from the state not given to other business owners — like small businesses who are struggling because their workers cannot find affordable housing in our communities, or because their customers lack discretionary funds. It’s rare to find a policy change opportunity that will help both workers and business owners. Rent stabilization is a win-win for our communities as a whole.
Rent stabilization is not only the right thing to do, it’s popular with the voters who will decide whether to return [legislators] to office. EMC Research found two-thirds of likely November 2024 voters in Washington support a statewide limit on rent increases, and nearly 6 in 10 say they are more likely to support a candidate for legislature or statewide office who supports such limits.
Further evidence of public demand was on display during committee hearings on the rent stabilization policy, where more than 3,000 of us signed in to support the bills under consideration — a historic demonstration of how much Washingtonians favor the policy.
Bellingham resident Kerri Burnside is an organizer with the Bellingham Tenants Union and president of the Silver Beach Neighborhood Association.