Tenant Protections in Whatcom County

A Brief Look Into Rent Control, Assistance and Landlords

by Sorrel Thoerner, Simon Shultis, and Ian Degnin.

Neighborhood Housing Picture
High Angle Shot of Suburban Neighborhood. Photo courtesy of David McBee

Renters in Whatcom County are collectively exhausted with the cost and quality of their rental units. Prices of units are on the rise and the quality of units is steadily decreasing. Rent control is a possible solution to this problem – and one that is currently being debated across Washington state.

Rent control fixes the amount of rent that property owners can charge their tenants monthly, which gives tenants more stability in their housing. According to Lisa Sturtevant, “Limiting rent levels or rent increases under a rent control law allows lower-income individuals and families to gain access to housing they can afford in high-cost housing markets. Depending on how it is implemented, a rent control strategy can create and preserve mixed income neighborhoods and can help promote racial and economic integration.”

However, rent control also fosters its own issues. Sturtevant describes how rent control can also reduce housing availability, quality of housing, and increase the rent of nearby uncontrolled units.

Sturtevant describes a commonly proposed alternative to rent control, which is rent stabilization. Rent stabilization sets a maximum percentage on how much a property owner can raise the price of rent within a certain time period. Another alternative to rent control is consistent housing subsidies provided to tenants. These subsidies have limited availability and are often solely directed to those who need the most assistance, excluding people who may still need assistance.

Bellingham has begun to take steps to protect tenants’ rights. Ralph Schwartz from Cascadia News Daily reports on a law that The City of Bellingham has recently passed, stating that landlords must give tenants a four-month notice before increasing their rent.

Whatcom Democrats also passed a housing resolution in 2018 supporting policies that “increase the stock of more affordable housing, decrease de facto segregation by neighborhood, expand housing choices, limit rent increases, and build a walkable, compact, and connected community.” The local government recognizes the problem of renting in Whatcom County and is slowly pursuing solutions to address the communal harm that high rent causes.

WCC Cedar Hall Dorms
Whatcom Community College Student Housing. Photo courtesy of Aaron Locke

Vacancy rates in Bellingham are extremely low. Since there are no regulations on how much landlords can charge tenants for rent, a tenant could easily find themselves in a situation where they wouldn’t be able to pay rent. With the low vacancy rates, the probability of tenants finding another apartment in the area is slim.

Problems in the rental sphere also have effects on young adults and the student population. Many students rent, and without sufficient dorm space, students are especially reliant on rental units. Students and young adults already struggle financially, and drastic rises in rent and poor quality of units can cause significant issues.

Rental Assistance: Survey Findings

Rental assistance programs are commonly proposed “middle ground” solutions. They help alleviate the burden of rent among low-income households without directly manipulating the ability of property managers to operate within the free market. Ideally, this minimizes the consequences of intervention.

Our research team conducted a survey in February 2023 to find out people’s feelings about Whatcom’s renting situation. We received over 100 responses, and found that many people in Whatcom County consider the current rental assistance programs insufficient.

“Not sure how rental assistance programs could be improved,” says one respondent. “Maybe more funding from the state government.”

“I think one thing that could help with rental assistance programs is getting more information out about them to the public,” suggests another respondent, “and potentially decreasing the stigma that it takes forever to get rental assistance.”

Survey Graph
Figure 1: Whatcom Survey-takers Experience with Housing Assistance Programs

Others believe that these programs are inherently flawed in the current system: “I would rather see efforts go into capping the cost of rent than improving rental assistance programs” says one responder.

Another argues that it is “a nightmare for renters here. Preleasing should be illegal and we need rent control.”

“People in this community are also radically out of touch with where things are headed and why,” challenges a responder, “and pining for the good old days that are never coming back without major re-regulation and economic paradigm shifts.”

Rental assistance in our area is flawed, and some feel that looking back on the past does not alter the current situation. Some survey-takers who identified as “insecurely housed” found that they didn’t qualify for assistance from Opportunity Council, which is one of the largest housing assistance organizations in our county.

The consensus among those who took the survey is that rent is too high, rental assistance offers too little, and the greed of property management companies goes unchecked.

Conflict Between Landlords and Tenants 

Many tenants in Whatcom County have had negative experiences that make it difficult to trust their landlords.

One survey-taker claims, “Property management companies in the area are known to take advantage of renters, price gouge, not properly upkeep the apartment(s)/houses, and to try to hold onto damage deposits unfairly.”

The landlord-tenant debate has been alive and fueled for decades. Conflict between landlords and tenants is often situational, but the ultimate power and responsibility lies with the landlords.

RealPage is a software tool that many property management companies (PMCs) use to calculate how much rent should be according to algorithms developed to maximize profits. This becomes a problem as more PMCs put their properties on RealPage: it collects data from these properties and repeatedly applies this knowledge onto the market.

According to Rebecca Quirke from Bellingham’s Tenants Revolt, this means that RealPage is manipulating the housing market, and this manipulation is driving prices upwards at alarming rates.

Heather Vogell reports in ProPublica about the RealPage software’s effects, writing that even executives from RealPage believe that RealPage is “driving” the prices of rent. Another ProPublica article describes a lawsuit pending against RealPage for colluding to drive up rates.

According to Quirke, the massive faceless PMCs in our area are buying out smaller ones. Quirke describes the faceless PMC Blackstone Realty as “a huge, towering property management oppressor. They have been purchasing companies that don’t use RealPage and putting them on RealPage and it’s so predatory.”

We reached out to 7 different property managers in Whatcom County looking to interview, and none replied.

Case for Rent Control: Pros and Cons

The problem with rental assistance programs is that they incentivize property managers to continue suspect practices. If a tenant has their housing subsidized by the government, then a landowner still benefits from inflated housing prices. Subsidizing low-income housing doesn’t cost the community less money; it simply shifts the costs to taxpayers.

Common rent control pitfalls — such as reduction of “the quantity and quality of housing” and “efficiency challenges and negative housing market impacts” ­­– are still a concern, but many of these problems are already present in our area. Most of the major property managers fail to maintain their properties. Vacancy rates are incredibly low. People will commonly argue that these negatives outweigh the financial equity provided by rent control, but when that financial equity already fails to exist, the case for rent control opens again.

When it comes to localized issues like these, there is strength in numbers– and knowledge. The more people become educated on the topic of renting, the less power the experts hold. Bellingham is already making slow progress, but with a push from the people, this tenant-protection process could be sped up and prevent more harm.

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