Sharp rent increases across WA state have college students scrambling for more options

Bob Brawdy/bbrawdy@tricityherald.com
·5 min read

Parents sending their kids back to college after COVID aren’t imagining things, it really is getting more expensive for students to live on or near campus.

For decades the traditional wisdom has been that it’s cheaper for students to split an apartment than a dorm room, if they’re responsible enough to manage the bills themselves.

But with rapid rent increases, students heading back to college towns in Washington after COVID restrictions are seeing much higher off campus rent prices than before.

A recent study showed that rent prices in Washington state have risen by nearly 20% since 2020.

Whitman County, home of Washington State University’s flagship campus in Pullman, had the highest vacancy rates in the state in Spring 2022 — and still rent increased significantly there, according to data from the University of Washington’s Center for Real Estate Research.

The center compiles rent price data for apartments twice a year for every county in Washington State by survey.

Those averages for all apartments, rented and vacant, combined with real time snapshots from Rent.com of available units paint an uncomfortable picture for parents and students already struggling with the high price of college.

Sean Greene, Associate Vice Chancellor for Facilities and Operations for WSU, said that when parents look at the benefits of campus living in either dorms or the school’s own apartments, they will find that not only are the prices similar, but the campus offers more convenience.

“I think our residence halls have been more competitive for a while than most parents realize,” Greene said. “We have for years said, that if you really look at the cost of living compared to on campus, because of the convenience ... that comparing apples to apples (living on campus) isn’t as expensive as you think.”

The on campus opportunities also offer peace of mind for parents sending their teens away from home for the first time, with the ability to purchase meal plans and have bills rolled into the overall cost.

Greene said that on campus living also brings other benefits such as the ability to sign a lease for just your room, regular activities, easy access to student resources and safety.

Some properties near colleges do offer single person leases for students renting a room in a shared apartment, but it can vary by school and market.

Greene said the pricing of their campus run apartments are set by the school to remain competitive with off campus properties, meaning the prices will always be similar, but the school’s properties tend to have more benefits.

Rising costs

So just how expensive are off campus apartments now?

In Whitman County, the average price of a two-bedroom rose by $116 from Spring 2020 to last spring. Those averages were taken in March of both years, offering a comparison of prices before the COVID-19 pandemic began to impact housing.

July data from Rent.com shows the average price of available 1-bedroom apartments at $1,000 per month and 2-bedrooms at $1,365.

Campus run apartments start as low as $390 a month for a room in a shared unit, and go up to $685 per month for a shared 2-bedroom that comes furnished. The unfurnished option at the same campus-run apartment complex is $30 less each month.

“Parents should really evaluate what that cost is, is that just base rent or does it include bills (and amenities)?” Greene said.

While the cost of splitting a 2-bedroom at market value appears similar at first glance, it doesn’t include other bills, meal plans or internet. Most of the campus run apartments are either all bills paid or include everything except for electricity. They all include high speed internet.

They also offer leases that follow the semester, meaning students don’t have to worry about subletting their room or paying rent when out for summer or winter breaks.

Other Washington schools

The Pullman area isn’t the only college town where renters are feeling the crunch.

For Western Washington University students in Bellingham, the average 1-bedroom comes out to $1,400 per month.

Only one property was available for $1,200 or less per month in July. The average 2-bedroom was $1,450, with only seven 2-bedroom properties available for $1,450 or less.

While WWU doesn’t have campus run apartments, there are several complexes aimed at students through WWU Living, to offer room rentals in shared units. The set up is similar to the WSU Pullman apartments and are located near the campus. WWU Living is not affiliated with the college.

They range from $707 per month to $757 per month. Most of those apartments include utilities and internet, except for electricity.

Bellingham has seen the largest cost of living increase for students in the state for students outside of the Seattle-Tacoma metro area, according to Department of Education data.

During the 2019-20 academic year the estimated cost of room and board was $12,036 per year. For 2021-22, it’s jumped to $13,080. Those prices are for room and board, and do not include other expenses such as optional meal plans or transportation.

For comparison, the estimated costs for WSU campuses in Pullman, Tri-Cities and Vancouver have gone from $11,648 to $11,848.

University of Washington at Seattle saw a $1,575 increase during that same time period, and Olympia saw an increase of $786.

Room and board on campus at Gonzaga University in Spokane rose by $862.

In Washington, tuition and fees have also risen considerably over the past decade. WSU has raised their tuition and fees by 2.5% annually since 2017 when a new state law capped how much public colleges could raise those costs each year.

Combined with rising tuition and fees costs and inflation hitting the wallet at every turn, these numbers could mean tough decisions are ahead for parents already feeling the financial crunch.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article billed WWU Living as a partnership with Western Washington University. They are not affiliated with the college.