Bellingham voters consider minimum-wage hike, tenant protections

Proponents of the initiatives — one similar to a recent Tacoma campaign — say rising housing costs are spurring the policy efforts.

A picture of people at Larrabee State Park in the city of Bellingham.

Larrabee State Park in Bellingham on March 21, 2019. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

On election day, Bellingham voters will weigh in on two citywide ballot measures: one that would increase the minimum wage above $17 an hour and another to expand tenant protections.

As in a similar campaign in Tacoma that focuses on a wider slate of proposed tenant protections, proponents of Bellingham’s initiatives say the high cost of housing, along with rent increases and a lack of local political action, is spurring the effort.

Unlike the fight over Tacoma’s Measure 1, which has drawn big money in recent weeks from real estate and landlord interests, the two Bellingham initiatives are flying under the radar. No proponent or opposition campaigns have registered to raise and spend money in the last dash to the Nov. 7 election, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission.  

The two initiatives have been put forth by Community First Whatcom, with the endorsement of groups ranging from the Whatcom County Democrats to the United Food and Commercial Workers 3000 and the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.  

The Bellingham City Council is populated by more centrist Democrats who haven’t done enough to address the issue, said Andrew Reding, chair of the Whatcom County Democrats.

“We have a situation where rents are rising at a far greater pace than income are, and the reason for that is a severe housing shortage,” Reding said.

Jace Cotton, the campaign manager for the ballot measures who is also running for City Council, said approval of the initiatives could “go a long way to preventing homelessness in our community.”

Along with public safety, questions of affordable housing – from rent and home prices to homelessness – have lingered over this year’s local races, including in the Spokane mayor’s race and in Seattle City Council elections.

Washington state’s current minimum wage is $15.74 per hour and increases with inflation. Starting Jan. 1, the statewide wage minimum goes up to $16.28. The cities of Seattle and SeaTac have their own wage floors set above the state minimum, at $18.69 and $19.06 per hour, respectively.

With Bellingham’s Initiative 1, voters will choose to raise the minimum wage. If approved, Bellingham’s minimum wage would be set $1 above the state’s minimum wage. That would take effect on May 1, meaning the wage would be $17.28.

Then, beginning May 1, 2025, the city’s minimum wage will bump up to $2 above the state’s minimum wage, and continue to go up over time so it remains $2 above the state wage.

An email seeking comment on the proposals to the Bellingham Regional Chamber of Commerce was not returned. In a citizens’ guide, the conservative-leaning think tank Washington Policy Center made a case against the minimum-wage increase. Such an increase could cause businesses to move out of the city, wrote Mark Harmsworth, director for the organization’s center for small business.

“The requirements imposed on employees and employers by Initiative 1 would cost both [of] them more money, destroy jobs and create an uncompetitive job market in Bellingham that would slow economic growth in the region,” wrote Harmsworth, a former Republican state lawmaker.

“It would also deny earning opportunities to those who are seeking jobs and want to work, especially for low-skilled and low-income workers,” he added.

But Reding said the wage increases are needed to help working people afford the increased costs of living, such as housing.

“We need to take people at the very bottom who are working at the lower-paid jobs and get them more money so they can pay rent,” he said.

Meanwhile, the tenant protections proposal, if approved, would require 120 days’ advance notice of rent increases. If a rent increase is imposed of 8% or more in a 12-month rolling timeframe, tenants could be eligible for relocation assistance from the landlord.

That assistance must equal the sum of three times Bellingham’s current fair-market monthly rent as defined by U.S. Housing and Urban Development metrics, or three times that tenant's existing monthly rent, whichever is larger, according to the proposal.

Sean Flynn, president and executive director of the Rental Housing Association of Washington, said he had some of the same objections about the Bellingham initiative as he does for the more sweeping Tacoma proposal.

“This is going to make it far more expensive for smaller housing providers to stay in the market,” he said. “This is a massive risk.”

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