Guest Commentaries

Skyrocketing rents turn into 'economic evictions'

State rent stabilization bills need support
February 24, 2023 at 5:00 a.m.
Rents went up an average of 70% in Whatcom County between 2015 and 2021, according to Zillow data. Washington lawmakers are considering bills this session to stop rent gouging and protect tenants from displacement.
Rents went up an average of 70% in Whatcom County between 2015 and 2021, according to Zillow data. Washington lawmakers are considering bills this session to stop rent gouging and protect tenants from displacement. (Trenton Almgren-Davis/Cascadia Daily News)

By Michael Parker, Guest Writer

It’s not news that we’re in a housing crisis here in Whatcom County. There’s universal agreement that we need to make a major investment in new housing. But new housing alone will not help the 40% of Washingtonians who are renters stay in the homes they live in today.

American Community Survey data reports rents across Washington increased by 63% between 2010 and 2021, far outpacing inflation and income. In fact, according to Zillow data, rents went up an average of 70% in Whatcom County between 2015 and 2021.

Skyrocketing rents can easily turn into economic evictions for many, and are driving people in our community into homelessness. Studies show that every $100 rent increase leads to at least a 9% increase in homelessness. Increases in homelessness in our state have been directly correlated to high rents by researchers at the Department of Commerce

Out-of-control rents don’t just hurt tenants, they hurt our entire community. When families are forced to move because of rent hikes, learning is disrupted when students are forced to change schools, social connections and support systems are broken, and workers are forced to live further from their jobs. When rents are too high, businesses, schools, hospitals, nursing homes and other essential services can’t find enough workers. Businesses have a harder time attracting workers who can afford to live in our area. And workers paying high rents have less take-home pay to spend in our local businesses, restaurants, hair salons and movie theaters.

Most of us who are homeowners today were renters at some point in our lives. Homeowners enjoy the stability of a steady mortgage. When my daughter was born we moved into a bigger place and were fortunate to be able to hold onto our prior house instead of selling. Now we are landlords, and the income we get from our tenants helps cover our own housing expenses.

But many renters are vulnerable to unexpected rent hikes with short notice, forcing them to make impossible choices between paying rent and buying food, going to the doctor, or filling up their car with gas.

There is hope on the horizon. Bills to stop rent gouging and protect tenants from displacement are moving through our state Legislature this session, including one sponsored by Bellingham’s Rep. Alex Ramel. Rent stabilization measures are widely supported by tenants and affordable housing and homelessness prevention advocates.

What might come as a surprise is that many landlords like me want to be part of the solution, too. I’m asking the state to restrict my ability to levy exorbitant rent hikes on my tenants. I’m for rent stabilization because I want my daughter to be able to afford to live here when she’s grown. If we are going to solve our housing and homelessness crisis, rent stabilization is critical.

And don’t be fooled — rent stabilization is not the same as rent control; it does not tell landlords what to charge, it stabilizes the rate of increase on a current tenant once the landlord has set the initial rent. Under the rent stabilization bills before the Washington legislature, landlords can reset the rent to any rate they want after a tenant vacates. And landlords are allowed to impose a reasonable increase each year and receive exemptions for major repairs.

I know from my experience that we landlords do not need to impose exorbitant rent increases to continue operating quality, safe housing. The narrative from lobbyists that rent stabilization will impede new housing growth is just false. The rent stabilization measures proposed would only apply to rental properties that are more than 12 years old, exempting new construction.

We have to give renters more protection or we will never solve our homelessness crisis. I appreciate Ramel’s leadership on the need for rent stabilization. These bills deserve the support of our elected leaders, senators Sharon Shewmake and Liz Lovelett, and representatives Alicia Rule, Joe Timmons and Debra Lekanoff.

Michael Parker, an affordable-housing advocate, lives with his family in Bellingham. 

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