Don’t Be Manipulated by Misleading Data

The effect of WWU students on Whatcom County’s rental housing market

The effect of WWU students on Whatcom County’s rental housing market

As Bellingham struggles with skyrocketing rents, any effort toward a solution requires we start with facts: We can’t solve a problem without knowing its exact nature. One variable in our rental housing is the impact of Western Washington University students who live off campus, and how they affect rental costs. This article tries to clarify that impact.

About 70 percent of WWU’s approximately 15,000 students live off campus and it seems obvious that their presence has an impact on Whatcom County’s rental housing market—especially in Bellingham. What’s not as obvious is how misleading statements about this rental market can be when they don’t take these students into account. Unfortunately, examples of misleading information abound:  (1) Whatcom County; (2) Bellingham; (3) Ferndale; (4) the Association of Washington Cities; and (5) the Washington Department of Commerce, and the information website, Stacker, which is designed to “…provide publishers with engaging, data-driven stories.” 

Using Stacker as an example, their data on ‘rent as a percentage of median income’ shows Whatcom County is the 5th highest of all 39 Washington counties. When one looks at the state’s six highest counties, it is immediately apparent that, like Whatcom County, two others are impacted by the presence of a university: Kittitas County (with Central Washington University) is 3rd highest in rent as a percent of income, and Whitman County (with Washington State University) is the highest. The remaining three are counties one would expect to be high because they represent the most urbanized areas of the state: King is 6th highest, Snohomish is 4th, and Pierce is in 2nd place. 

The fact that universities are found in three of these top six counties is more than a hint that WWU likely has a significant impact on Whatcom County’s rental housing market. To “unpack” this impact, and in the spirit of Stacker, I will try to provide, if not an engaging story, at least one that is truly data-driven. To do this, I use data from several sources, in conjunction with some assumptions. (For details on the data and assumptions, click here for Note#1).

Let’s start with income. Whatcom County’s median annual household income is $62,984, or $5,249/month (gross). Stacker shows that 22.6 percent of that income goes to pay median rent, which according to their data, is $1,185. At 22.6 percent of income, that median rent places Whatcom County in that 5th highest percent of income-to-rent category. 

But, if we estimate the median monthly household income for non-student households, it comes out to $5,940, a $700/mo. difference. (For details on the calculations, click here for Note#2). With this increase in income, only 20.0 percent of median household income is going to pay median rent in Whatcom County. This change may seem small, but that 20 percent now places Whatcom in 18th place, right behind Jefferson County’s 19.9 percent. Jefferson County has a population of not quite 33,000 and encompasses Sequim, Port Townsend, and most of the Olympic National Park. This new ranking for Whatcom County is a significant change and one that illustrates the impact of WWU students on our rental market.

An expensive example of the damaging effects misleading data can have is in the conversations around low-income housing needs. The change in Whatcom County’s ranking, from 5th highest to 18th when students are considered, nullifies the argument of an urgent need for low-income housing. Again, the simple fact is that any argument or statement about the county’s rental market that doesn’t consider the impact of students, is misleading.

An even clearer picture of Whatcom’s rental market comes into view when one considers that students are generally members of parental households. These households have much higher median incomes than students with independent incomes. In 2021, (the most recent data available,) independent student median annual income was $19,953. Whereas parental households, on average, have median annual incomes that are four or more times higher than that. For example, the median annual income for the state as a whole is $82,400 (again, in 2021 dollars). Considering that many WWU students are from King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties, it is worthwhile noting that the median annual incomes in these counties are, respectively, $106,326, $82,574 and  $95,618. Each of these three counties has a median income not only higher than that for the state as a whole, but also higher than Whatcom County’s. 

Students residing off-campus are a structural feature of Whatcom County’s rental market. In other words, unlike individual WWU students who “come and go,” this structural feature is a permanent segment of our rental market. Because of it, Whatcom County residents find themselves in competition for housing against incomes from wealthier counties like King, Pierce, and Snohomish. This competition pushes local rents up because of demand from out-of-area households that have students at WWU. When demand from a given segment increases, supply tends to respond to it. 

Given the numerous facets of this data, I would suggest that if it is not already doing so, the WWU Foundation should consider expanding its portfolio into the real money-maker: off-campus rental units. Since the university appears ambivalent about providing more housing on campus, this could be a self-realizing investment; to paraphrase the idiom: They could kill two birds with one stone.

About David A. Swanson

Posting Citizen Journalist • Member since Mar 31, 2020

David A. Swanson is Edward A. Dickson Emeritus Professor of Sociology, University of California Riverside. He served as a member of the U. S. Census Bureau’s Scientific Advisory Committee [...]

Comments by Readers

Shawn Alexander

Nov 19, 2023

Thank you for taking the time to help us sort out the data and issues. 


Tim Surratt

Nov 19, 2023

I find that this article fails to make its own point.  The data presented are from limited sources and make comparisions which are replete with assumptions, none of which are tested for validity.  Further, the income figures used are median incomes for the entire population, which are being used to make statements about a different population, the population of renters.  Further, the verbiage in the Stacker report is unclear.  The verbiage in in the introduction paragraphs talk about rents, while the enumerated data reference housing cost.  Which is it?  The author gives no indication of the actual impact on rents caused by the students in the market.  A more valid comparison might be based on rents students pay vs. what non-students pay.  Further, in my albeit limited interaction with WWU students, I question the assumption of two students to a housing unit.  The students I have talked with typically have more than one other person sharing a ‘housing unit’.  In paragraph 7 the author makes a huge leap to say that these data skew the analysis of the need for low income housing.  A more valid way to look at that would be to look at quintiles of the population by income and the availability and affordability of housing for those segments.  Making blanket statments based in median incomes IS misleading.


David A. Swanson

Nov 19, 2023

I look forward to your full article.


Susan Wright

Nov 28, 2023

Thank you for opening this important conversation. The student population in Whatcom County skews everything and is rarely acknowledged in city and county planning. In addition to the now 16,000+ students at WWU, we also have students at WCC, BTC and NWIC. Most of these students live in Bellingham which means as many as 1 in 5 adults over the age of 18 are students.

The impact of this student cohort on housing, income and the job market has been largely ignored and yet drives many of the economic and political trends we have seen in recent years. It can be argued that candidates and issues alike have benefited from the student vote, including the Children’s Initiative that squeaked by last year and several of the candidates that were elected to office this month.

What proportion of recent housing developments targets student renters rather than the broader population which is interested in different types of housing with different amenities? The families of students may be able to pay higher rents to assure their students can live near WWU, but what is the impact of that factor on the larger housing market? Is there an impact on the development of low-income, family and worker housing for permanent residents when students are willing to pay higher rents for smaller accommodations?

Many college students work, but few work for a living wage that would allow them to remain in Bellingham after graduation. To what extent is the average income in this county skewed by the large number of students participating in the local job market?  Is there an impact on the availability of jobs with the large number of students who are working?

Factoring in the effect of the student population on our local economy should be the first order of consideration as both the city and county move into their comprehensive plan processes.



Thomas R. Scott

Dec 02, 2023

Additional Context:

Place County Pop * City w/ Unv. Pop * Universities Undergrad Pop +   Total   Cost +  % Students in Pop
1 Whitman 44,776 Pullman 29,799 WSU 25470   25,470  $15,300  57%
2 Pierce 795,225 Tacoma 198,397 PLU, UPS 2,544, 1,898     4,737  $23,024, $33,562  1%
3 Kittitas 40,915 Ellensburg 18,174 CWU 10518   10,518  $16,514 26%
4 Snohomish 713,335     None            -     0%
5 Whatcom 201,140 Bellingham 80,885 WWU 14,194   14,194  $17,070 7%
6 King 1,931,249 Seattle 608,660 SU, SPU 4,244, 2,702     6,946  $35,109, $26,714  0%

*, © 2020, 2019

+, 2017-2018 school year.

Intuitively, I had always thought that the student population influxes had a major impact on rental costs.  My past anecdotal experiences had supported that.  However, looking at the numbers above indicates that there is more to this.  Indeed, for Whitman, whose year-round residents are a minority to the students, the numbers seem to support such a proposal.

However, for the others, something more must be at play.  I do not have sufficient numbers or other personal knowledge for most of the other five Counties.  However, for Whatcom, more correctly, the City of Bellingham, I might suspect that the lack of code enforcement in general and specifically in response to issues found during rental inspections on the City’s part may be a bigger impact and, hence, just might be the primary or first place to look for the most improvement.

For decades, the City has actively looked the other way regarding code violations, including many with direct health and safety implecations.  As long as landlords, especially the largest land-owning landlords can shoehorn students and others into a family dwelling, charging per occupant rents, while the City looks the other way and as long as the same landlords can ignore health and safety issues, rents will be high and many families (of any definition) will not be able to compete/afford to “buy in” to the local dwelling markets.

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