In Our View: Finding the way home

Landing a suitable rental becomes increasingly difficult in Clark County

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A search of the U.S. Census Bureau's website shows Clark County has 169,746 housing units — homes, apartments, condominiums and mobile homes. But finding a decent rental at an affordable price has become an increasing problem, two recent stories in The Columbian show.

Perhaps the problem is an unwelcome leftover from the Great Recession, which still has its tentacles wrapped around Clark County's midsection, constricting family income growth. And there are always renters who will have trouble finding housing due to prior evictions, criminal convictions and damage and disruption they caused. But the problem is bigger than that.

Take the Cox family of Camas. The family, which includes five kids, have lived in the same house for eight years, but now the landlord is selling. Mom Jacinta Cox keeps looking, but rental vacancy rates are only about 3 percent, or even lower in some areas. She recently called the landlord of what looked like a promising house, but was told she was the 70th caller.

For the 66 percent of Clark County residents who own their own homes, rents can seem ridiculously high. A three-bedroom, two-bath home in east Vancouver goes for $1,055 a month, according to Multifamily NW, a Tigard, Ore., firm that tracks local real-estate statistics for apartments and other multifamily units. Even a one-bedroom apartment costs more than $700 on average. Median household income in Clark County is $58,764.

Predictably the toughest search for a suitable rental falls to those with the lowest incomes. For the poorest, there are housing vouchers, which tenants can use to find privately owned housing. They pay a certain amount, then the government pays the rest of the rent directly to the landlord.

But the vouchers are an imperfect solution. Andy Silver, executive director of Clark County Council for the Homeless, said that last year, 300 households with vouchers couldn't find a landlord willing to rent to them. Participating in the voucher program is time and trouble for landlords who can rent to unsubsidized tenants.

The council also worked with Clark County government to set up a new $100,000 landlord risk mitigation fund that can be tapped to give landlords incentives to rent to tenants with housing vouchers.

There are some other bright spots. A new Housing Solutions Center has opened, making it easier for low-income clients to find out about and participate in various rental subsidy programs. A couple of new affordable housing projects have been announced, although the state's Housing Trust Fund received no allocation in the last legislative budget session.

Some existing programs have been made more flexible to help people overcome barriers to finding housing, and the Council for the Homeless is partnering with two local churches to develop a Housing Support Network.

For those with means to pay market rent, landlords have been building more multifamily housing. Approximately 1,300 new apartments will be added to the existing 40,000 units this year. One apartment complex recently opened in West Hazel Dell, and others are under construction or proposed.

Another solution, of course, would be for more people to desire, and be able to afford, to buy a home. In the meantime, the problem of finding a decent place to rent at an affordable price seems likely to persist.