Maddie Miles is 22 years old and worked at the Dollar Tree in Bellingham where she was earning minimum wage until she quit a little over a month ago. She decided that the pay wasn’t worth the pain of working retail and getting treated poorly by customers — all for a three- to four-hundred-dollar paycheck.
Miles feels fortunate to live with her mother and siblings, but she wasn’t able to make enough money to pay for her food and necessities. She’s now considering going back to school to become an EMT to earn a living wage. Come November, Miles plans to vote in her best interest to earn higher wages and ensure protections for renters.
Ballots for the 2023 general election drop on Oct. 20, and voters in Bellingham will find two initiatives on the ballot that seek to address rental increases and minimum wage. 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. Initiative 2 would require a landlord to pay tenants the equivalent of three month’s rent to help them relocate, if the landlord raises the tenants’ rent by more than 8%.
Young voters considered these propositions from their personal experiences with minimum-wage jobs and nightmare stories from their first years of renting on their own.
“At least for me and people I know that are my age, they have to have a lot of help to be able to stay afloat even if they’re working 40-, 50-, 60-hour work weeks,” Miles said. “The minimum wage right now is not aligned with the prices of rent and food and everything.”
In Bellingham, the cost of living is up 2.9% from a year ago with the largest increases found in transportation, food and housing, according to Salary.com. That’s 10.9% higher than the national average.
“I’ve noticed students who’ve had to work up to two to three jobs while still being in school, which really should not be the requirement in order to be able to afford to live in the same area to get education,” said Berit Manser, a senior at Western Washington University. “I’ve seen people have to take out having sports or clubs or extracurriculars, just so they can match what they need to stay in their living situation or even have to move out (of Bellingham).”
Manser has worked at the Starbucks on Iowa and King Streets since the day she moved to Bellingham from Colorado. She’s seen the amount of homeless and impoverished folks who come by the shop increase year by year, which has given her a vision of the difficult economic climate of the city and made her stand behind Initiative 1, she said. “It’s insane how they’re just victims of the system and it’s really unfortunate.”
“Low-wage workers in Bellingham are not able to get ahead. Rising costs have hurt them the hardest,” said Seth Mangold, vice chair of Community First Whatcom which put forth the initiatives. “Young people will be key voters in delivering an historic win by passing Initiative 1 to raise the local minimum wage.”
Though young voters may show apathy for local elections and only 39% of 18 to 24-year-olds reportedly cast ballots in Washington’s 2022 election compared to over 80% of people 65 and older, all young voters interviewed by the Salish Current expressed strong support for minimum wage increases and renter protections set forth by Initiatives 1 and 2.
“The minimum wage needs to rise as the cost of living does, and right now, I don’t think it’s up to the standard of the cost of living here,” said Ally Lulay, 20, a student at WWU who had previously stated that she was too unsure to vote in local elections. This time around, she has informed herself about mayoral candidates and propositions enough to feel confident voting this November.
“You’re probably getting 30 hours a week if you’re really pushing for it as a student,” said Sam Borcherding, 23, who worked as a DoorDash driver when he was a student at WWU. “Twenty hours is difficult, which is just barely paying your rent, and if you’re somebody like me, who’s a bigger guy, you’re not paying rent and your food bills working only 20 hours a week at a job that pays minimum wage.”
Borcherding is passionate about supporting unions and protecting the working class. He is all for Initiative 1, but worries that corporations will hike the prices for their products that poorer people can’t avoid buying in areas where the minimum wage increases. He fears that small businesses could end up suffering instead and there won’t be very much benefit from the measure if wages are below the cost of inflation.
Miles finds herself frustrated in a different way — she wants to see wages increased more than $2 over the next two years in Bellingham.
Paige Censale is a student at Brown University in Rhode Island, but still keeps her voter registration in Blaine where her family lives. For her, the issues of minimum wage increases and renter protections go hand in hand. She’s seen renters and homeowners moving to her hometown out of Bellingham to avoid the high cost of living, moving to newly constructed housing units, which seems in turn to increase Blaine’s cost of living.
“We’ve been asking for higher minimum wages forever,” Censale said. “The issue of minimum wage is going to always be an issue as long as rent keeps increasing. If you’re going to raise people’s rent without much notice and they don’t have a plan to keep up with that rent raise, then I think it is somewhat fair to require these landlords to give them compensation so they can find somewhere else to live.”
Gracie Abernathy lived in Gig Harbor until she moved to Bellingham in the fall to attend WWU. Abernathy, 19, cares about LGBTQ+ rights, freedom from religious oppression and livable wages. She’s in the process of temporarily switching her registration over to her dormitory address in Bellingham in order to vote where she lives and hopefully create a more renter-friendly environment for herself and her friends when she moves out of Alma Clark Glass Hall.
She’s not close to applying for an apartment and she’s just settling into life at the university, but Abernathy is already thinking about getting a job in Bellingham in order to save up to pay for her rent, utilities, groceries and other cost of living expenses that she’ll face next year.
The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Bellingham increased by 15% over the last year, according to Zumper data. The City’s Consolidated Plan Overview reports that 56% of renters in Bellingham are cost-burdened, spending more than 30% of their income on housing. The data also shows that median rent has gone up 41% in Bellingham over the last five years, while median income has increased 18%.
Manser was considering moving out of her two-bedroom apartment that she was sharing with a roommate last year when she saw the unit listed online with a $400 rent increase. She had been paying $700 per month, making this a nearly 30% increase.
“It was insane,” Manser said. “I would never stay here for that. Maybe that’s not a lot to some, but it was a lot to me and that’s all that mattered.”
Lulay wants to see more regulations for landlords, holding them accountable for treating their tenants well and maintaining their property if they are going to increase rent. Lulay lived with six other roommates last year, in a house in a condition she could only describe as “shoddy” that had faulty plumbing her landlord considered too expensive to fix. After she deemed her room too expensive to live in for another year, her landlord took deductions out of her security deposit that she said was “highway robbery.”
“I think that (Initiative 2) is a great idea because landlords will try and slight you in any way possible, especially by just raising rent and expecting you to figure something out in a short period of time, which is almost impossible,” Lulay said. “Finding housing elsewhere, especially if this happens in the middle of the year, is hard because a lot of the housing situations in Bellingham are a one-year lease that starts at the beginning of the school year.”
Miles would like to see renter protections go even further than the provisions of Initiative 2 and establish a rent cap. She also worries that requiring landlords to help tenants relocate and pay them three months of rent if they increase rent more than 8% wouldn’t be easily enforced, and that landlords still might take advantage of renters who don’t know the law.
“I think it should honestly be illegal for landlords to make any money on owning a house but I know for a fact so many of them make a ridiculous amount of money to the point where they don’t even work,” said Borcherding whose current property management company threatens to raise the rent each year if he doesn’t re-sign his lease, though his rent was still increased by $40 per person. “Landlords don’t really provide anything because the housing already exists. The landlords just make us pay too much for it.”
Borcherding is all for local policy that would protect students, who are often first-time renters, from landlords that currently have the freedom to increase rent by whatever amount knowing that college students are less likely to push back on it, he said.
“I think more young people are going to be showing up (to vote) more because our generation is going to have to,” Censale said. “We might be moving in and staying with our parents if we can’t afford to live on our own anymore.”
Ballots for the general election are due on Nov. 7 by 8 p.m.
— Reported by Kai Uyehara, with contributions from Aria Nguyen
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