Pro and con: Bellingham's minimum wage, renter relocation initiatives - Salish Current
October 20, 2023
Pro and con: Bellingham’s minimum wage, renter relocation initiatives
Devan Fischer and Guy Occhiogrosso; Kerri Burnside and Perry Eskridge

One of two initiatives before Bellingham voters seeks new protections for renters facing rent increases; the second would raise the city’s minimum wage. (Amy Nelson / Salish Current photo © 2023)

October 20, 2023
Pro and con: Bellingham’s minimum wage, renter relocation initiatives
Devan Fischer and Guy Occhiogrosso; Kerri Burnside and Perry Eskridge

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Whatcom Watch and Salish Current are collaborating in pre-election coverage of candidates and issues for the 2023 general election. The essays, analyses and opinions presented as Community Voices express the perspectives of their authors on topics of interest and importance to the community, and are not intended to reflect perspectives on behalf of the Salish Current.

Commentary: Supporters and opponents of two initiatives — one to raise the minimum wage above the state’s level, and one to mandate economic displacement assistance for renters — speak out on their perspectives on proposals to be decided by City of Bellingham voters.

Establishing a City Minimum Wage Above the State Minimum Wage: Initiative 2023-01

This measure would establish a City minimum wage that is $1.00 above the State minimum wage on May 1, 2024, increasing to $2.00 above the State minimum wage on May 1, 2025. The measure prohibits retaliation by employers against employees; establishes a private right of action for employees; gives the City access to work sites and records; and allows the City to issue civil infractions and order injunctive relief including reinstatement, restitution, and payment of back wages.

Vote YES on the wage initiative.

The past few years have weighed heavily on our community in Bellingham. Impacts from the pandemic still reverberate through residents and businesses. Housing costs keep rising with little to stop them, and many folks have lost their homes and stability. Over 13,000 signatures gathered from the community agree that something must be done about these issues and that Initiative 2023-01 is a good place to start.

Wages in Bellingham have been falling behind the cost of living. We are fortunate to live in such a beautiful place — but the rising expense of residing somewhere highly coveted has consequences for our community. 

For many working families, it has become a regular hardship to make ends meet. Workers who make minimum wage in Bellingham are hit the hardest. Many are working multiple jobs to afford housing and basic necessities. Living paycheck to paycheck, one crisis away from financial ruin causes constant stress that echoes through our city.

Minimum wage work keeps our economy moving. Grocery workers, those in the service industry, and entry-level laborers all deserve to afford to live safely and retain their housing. 

The MIT Living Wage Calculator finds that a living wage in Bellingham in 2023 for a single adult with no dependents is $17.30/hour. When we expect workers, especially those with children, to live paycheck-to-paycheck, our local economy and community are undermined. A modest increase of $2 in the minimum wage in Bellingham by 2025 will improve the living standards of minimum-wage workers by putting an additional $4,160/year in their pockets.

When wages go up, the community benefits through stimulated consumer spending, business support and economic growth. Small businesses would benefit from more consumers being able to afford their goods and services. A local minimum wage set at $2 above the state minimum wage by 2025 will help workers afford to stay and spend in our city. 

Please vote YES on Initiative 2023-01 to support Bellingham workers and a strong local economy.

— Contributed by Devan Fischer

Vote NO on the wage initiative.

The proponents say this initiative is for affordability. We agree our community is not affordable for many of our residents. Unfortunately, the primary thing this initiative will do is simply make things more expensive — thus decreasing everyone’s affordability. If a higher minimum wage leads to affordability, we should already be affordable with the highest minimum wage in the nation.

If this were to pass, our minimum wage will be approximately $18.75/hr. in less than 20 months. We will have four payroll increases over the next 20 months, on 1/1/24, 5/1/24, 1/1/25 and 5/1/25. This final date will put our minimum wage at $2 more than the state.

Two things will almost certainly happen — the cost of living (both goods and services) will increase, and wages will increase along the spectrum, not just at the lowest level. Every business/industry reacts to increased expenses differently — a restaurant may increase prices as they are always on thin margins, whereas a larger retailer may cut hours, shifts, employees, or operating hours. In either case, costs will likely increase. Wage compression will spread increases to those making well above the minimum wage.

In our recent survey of businesses, 90-plus percent expect most employees to want the same increase. If you have an employee currently at $18.50 (a touch less than $3 more than the current MW), and, in less than two years, this person will be making the MW along with others they may have to train, this person is highly likely to want an increase as well. In fact, I am sure most people will be asking for that same $2 increase.

We can somewhat guess on what will happen. Life will become even more difficult for those with fixed, limited/low, or no incomes. Goods and services will become even more expensive. Most people will want and expect increased wages along the wage spectrum to help compensate for that. Some businesses will choose to close. While this is very hard to prove, I think so many of our businesses are on thin margins already. Businesses will choose not to locate here. Also, hard to prove, but look at how few high-wage employers we have in our community. Our policies make and have made it very difficult for employers to succeed here, which is why we have a large percentage of retail, restaurant, and hospitality businesses — the same businesses who will be impacted the most.

While the idea of increasing the minimum wage may seem like a straightforward solution to address income inequality and improve the lives of low-wage workers, it is essential to consider the potential negative impacts on certain residents, businesses, job opportunities, and the overall economy. Striking a balance between fair wages and the sustainability of businesses is a complex challenge that requires careful consideration and analysis of the potential consequences. It is crucial for policymakers and voters to weigh both the intended benefits and unintended negative consequences when making decisions about minimum wage increases.

— Contributed by Guy Occhiogrosso 

Adopting a Rental Relocation Assistance Program for Tenants: Initiative 2023-02

This measure would require landlords to provide written notice 120 days before increasing rent by more than 8% in a rolling 12-month period; require landlords to pay relocation assistance equal to three times the current fair market monthly rent for Bellingham or three times the tenant’s existing monthly rate, whichever is higher, when increasing rent more than 8%, with limited exceptions; provide tenants receiving assistance a relocation period of 5 months; and authorize private actions and city enforcement.

Vote YES on the rental initiative

A Beacon of Hope for Affordable Housing in Bellingham

Bellingham, renowned for its breathtaking landscapes and vibrant culture, faces an unsettling truth: renting a home has become a vanishing luxury for many, including seniors, fixed-income individuals and families with children. In this housing crisis, Initiative 2 emerges as a glimmer of hope, dispelling myths and extending a much-needed helping hand to our community.

Confronting the Housing Affordability Crisis and Ensuring Rent Stability

In May, the city unveiled its comprehensive housing plan, laying bare a grim reality. It revealed that a staggering 56% of Bellingham’s renters grapple with being “cost-burdened,” devoting over 30% of their income to housing expenses. This isn’t a matter of choice; it’s a daily uphill battle for many of our fellow residents. With 55% of Bellingham homes rented, as per the 2022 census, guaranteeing rent stability is imperative. This measure aims to shield renters from abrupt, unmanageable spikes in their housing costs, providing them with the assurance of a secure home.

Alarming Rise in Homelessness and Inadequate Assistance for Growing Needs

The Point-in-Time (PIT) count reported a staggering 27% surge compared to the previous year. Even more alarming is the distressing 141% escalation in homelessness among seniors since 2019. These numbers underscore the pressing nature of our housing crisis. HUD delivers a disheartening statistic: only 25% of eligible individuals receive assistance in Bellingham. This implies a significant segment of our community wrestles with financial hardships, striving to maintain not just shelter but also their livelihoods.

The Cascade Effect of Rising Rents and The Staggering Cost of Displacement

Research paints a troubling picture of a domino effect — for every $100 increase in median rent, homelessness surges by a distressing 9%. This devastating cycle fuels the expansion of the homeless population, straining social services and impacting the entire community. Once someone becomes homeless, the cost of rehousing skyrockets. This not only burdens public resources but also inflicts immeasurable harm on individuals and families, leaving scars that can endure a lifetime.

A Ray of Hope and A Call to Action: Support Initiative 2

In the face of these grim statistics, Initiative 2 emerges as a beacon of hope. This initiative offers a tangible solution to our housing crisis by aiding those confronting exorbitant rent hikes as well as a fair and balanced framework for landlords. This initiative stands as a pivotal step in preventing homelessness and extends a lifeline to renters in dire need. As residents of Bellingham, we share a collective duty to confront this housing crisis head-on. Initiative #2 represents a significant stride in the right direction.

In Conclusion

The housing crisis is an undeniable reality that demands our immediate attention. Initiative 2 provides a compassionate and pragmatic response to the challenges renters face in our city. By casting our votes in favor of this initiative, we can strive to preserve Bellingham as a place where everyone can genuinely afford to call home. Vote YES for Initiative 2!

— Contributed by Kerri Burnside

Vote NO on the rental initiative.

Costs of living are rising everywhere for everyone, a situation impacting tenants primarily in the form of rising rent. Cost increases for goods and services are complex with many facets; however, rent discussions seem to focus on “greedy” landlords with no consideration of other factors. Rental housing recovering from the eviction moratorium and tenants not paying rent, new statutory requirements on rental property owners, and extraordinary costs for maintenance labor and material are making rental housing more expensive. Is a “rent cap” the answer? Not if we are serious about helping renters. 

The argument for Bellingham Initiative 2, a proposal to “cap” rent increases in a 12-month period to 8%, among other details, is the assertion that rents are rising at double digit percentages. That assertion is no longer true. Property owners recovering from the unprecedented financial impact from COVID-19 restrictions had no choice but to raise rents as mitigation for their losses. Now, two years later, Bellingham’s rental vacancy rate is the highest in years near 3% (5% is “normal”) and rents have stabilized. 

The rising vacancy rates and steady rents are the result of the multifamily building boom in Bellingham. Anyone driving down the streets of Bellingham has seen extensive construction, construction that the City of Bellingham now touts as resulting in a housing surplus. Bellingham’s 2022 buildable lands report details that the city has a couple thousand more units than is necessary to house the city’s population. Excess supply, we are all taught, leads to falling prices, the exact situation we are witnessing now with some renter incentives and rent concessions in the newer developments. 

If we want to help renters and work toward affordable housing for all, we need to stop focusing on gimmicks and address the causes of housing inequity. Initiative 2, while providing immediate relief, ultimately works to the detriment of renters. First, it caps rental income for property owners without corresponding caps on expenses. Put simply, rents reflect the costs incurred by an owner including mortgage payments, maintenance, taxes and property management fees. As costs increase, the rental rate must keep pace ensuring owners cover expense providing that unit for rent. If rents do not keep up, rentals get sold. Less supply means higher costs. 

Rental caps, and the associated financial penalties, also cause problems with housing construction. Financing expensive multifamily projects is based on the income such a development will produce. If a “rent cap” constrains the net income of a project, that project becomes “risky,” leading to construction uncertainty increasing the likelihood that a project will not be built. Again, less available housing for an increasing population means higher rents. 

Bellingham renters need real solutions. Likewise, rental property owners need assurance that providing rental housing will not lead to losses. The long-term solution is housing planning focused on the population’s needs, housing for everyone and not election cycle promises guarding neighborhood character. Our character is better reflected in safe, affordable housing for all our citizens.

— Contributed by by Perry Eskridge

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