In February 2018, WWU President Sabah Randhawa announced plans before the Bellingham City Council (albeit quite vague) that the university would begin building additional on-campus housing. (Video of his remarks here - and note that remarks about housing are peppered throughout his presentation.) As always, the devil is in the details, so we learn a year later in a WWU press release and a Herald article by Dave Gallagher, entitled “Western is planning several big projects, including one that addresses housing” that the net gain in on-campus housing will be a mere 264 beds.
Let’s do the math. The new dorm with approximately 400 beds will replace the existing Highland Hall dorm, but as mentioned above, with a net gain of around 264 beds. That means that 136 beds will be out of the equation for the next two years since Highland Hall will be razed. But the university plans to house those displaced by the two year construction window in rentals that the university will obtain off-campus, in the private rental market. That means that 136 additional rental units in Bellingham will be removed from the market for several years to accommodate the students displaced by construction.
After 2021, when the WWU dorm is completed, there will have been a net gain of 369 beds of on-campus housing since 1972; that is, 264 beds with the planned replacement of Highland Hall and 105 beds that were added to Buchanan Hall in 2011. The university has added about 5,000 students since 1972. The total number of beds added to on-campus housing in the nearly 50 year period following represents 7% of the additional student population of the period. The other 93%, about 4,600, were dumped on the city to house with no planning. Now we are stuck with a half century of what is no less than purposeful neglect on the part of the city and WWU.
It is not that the city and WWU had no knowledge of the problem. In my blog Twilight Zoning in Bellingham, I wrote about the dormitory issue in 2007 and 2008 as it related to other rental housing issues. I widely distributed links to my blog entries to city officials and university administration. The response was bupkis. Two mayors, two WWU presidents, and more than a handful of city council members later, all stare at the same issue and do the Chicken Little dance.
In the next 5 - 10 years, according to President Randhawa, WWU looks to add several thousand students to its overall rolls (from 16,000 to 18,000) which include the enrollment numbers from several WWU off-campus sites such as Everett. Suffice it to say, the large part of these annual numbers are most likely to fall into the Bellingham campus sphere and thus have an additional effect on the city’s housing availability. Even 100 additional students per year needing housing would have a significant impact on rental availability. Our latest private, market-priced dormitory construction projects (NXNW and Gather Bellingham) provided about 800 additional beds but do not appear to have occasioned a significant change in the rental vacancy rate. Another private, market priced dormitory project, Stateside, on State Street downtown will add about 500 beds by 2021. But these privately controlled dorms are not cheap ($700+ per bedroom in a shared apartment configuration). This still forces many students with reduced assets to rent rooms from private, free market landlords in units that are poorly maintained and often part of formerly single family homes, packed with five or more renters (illegal rooming houses), thus taking these homes off the market for purchase by working class families.
Finally startled by the crisis in housing affordability that has been building for half a century, the city government now looks to the same neighborhoods, whose housing stock has been bought up by investors, to accept yet more density as if they have not been doing so already for 50 years. And when the neighborhoods push back, and zoning changes that would largely benefit developers and landlords are the object of protest, the City Council calls “FOUL!” and characterizes the push-back as privileged NIMBYism, racism and elitism from non-representative neighborhood associations and gray-haired, monied homeowners.
It has still not sunk into the heads of our city’s leaders that there will be no gift of affordable housing from developers or landlords unless the council demands it. But the council demands little or nothing. The free market model reigns in Bellingham: build enough and the prices will come down. Where has this formula ever worked?
The capital for the government to build a large number of affordable units has flown out of the city and the state to corporate coffers and fiscal paradise islands of the Caribbean. It is time for the city to get really BOLD in its professed proposal for affordable housing by a surtax on the sale of real estate by investors, the inclusion of rental income within the parameters of the city’s Business and Operations tax, and a percentage of permanently affordable units in any apartment complex as a condition of permitting.
[Note: Article updated on 4/18/19 to correct a minor error in the net gain of beds and the actual date of the opening of the last dormitory on-campus, Buchanan Towers in 1972, not 1971.]