A recent University of Washington report on apartment availability verifies what many Skagit County residents have experienced for years: The local rental housing market is tied for the worst in the state.

Rental markets with a rate of below 5% vacancy are considered tight, according to the report.

Skagit’s vacancy rate — the percentage of rental units that are vacant at a given time — was 0.4%, according to the most recent data from spring 2019.

That number is down from 0.9% in the spring 2018, according to a previous report from the university’s Washington Center for Real Estate Research. In the same period, the statewide vacancy rate rose from 2.7% to 4.3%.

Of the 18 most populous counties assessed in the report, only Whatcom County matched Skagit’s numbers.

“This is consistent with the trends we’ve been seeing, (but) it was shocking to see Skagit singled out as the lowest,” said Kayla Schott-Bresler, assistant director of county Public Health.

The result is competition for housing and higher prices. In a constrained market, landlords can be extremely selective, meaning any blemish on one’s rental history can be disqualifying, Schott-Bresler said. Landlords can demand first and last month’s rent up front in addition to a larger deposit, and potential tenants lose the ability to negotiate.

“It sets a much higher bar financially,” she said.

Low vacancy rates and higher prices lead directly to an increase in homelessness, she said.

Katie Stephens, housing program manager with Community Action of Skagit County, said this report lines up with what she sees every day.

“As the first stop for anyone seeking housing assistance in Skagit County, we know that markets like this present conditions for exploitation,” she said in an email. “We can attest to unfortunate situations where people living in poverty are subject to uninhabitable conditions and are expected to pay toward rent.”

Stephens said she hopes the report motivates the community to advocate for more affordable and market-rate housing, as well as more shelter and services for the county’s homeless population.

The Skagit County commissioners recently announced plans to vote on a new funding source for affordable housing, potentially bringing in up to $5 million over 20 years, as soon as July 8.

— Reporter Brandon Stone: bstone@skagitpublishing.com, 360-416-2112, Twitter: @Brandon_SVH

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