Subsidized renters prove challenging, local landlords say

But the county is providing new incentives

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter

Published:

 

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Local landlords Lyn Ayers and Patti Silver both dedicate a small percentage of their business to low-income tenants. Both say they keep the rent “artificially low” for needy but deserving folks whom they’ve selected with care.

But neither one accepts government housing vouchers. That’s partly because of bureaucratic hassles and delays that can result in a real loss of rental income, Ayers said. The Vancouver Housing Authority must inspect the unit to make sure it’s “decent, safe and sanitary,” according to a VHA information sheet for landlords; landlords must do their own tenant screening for such red flags as previous evictions and criminal convictions; and agreement must be reached — and inked — about how much rent the landlord can collect both from the tenant and from VHA.

In the time all that takes, Ayers said, the unit “could have been rented 10 times over.”

Silver (no relation to Andy Silver of the Council for the Homeless) described one of her rental properties as a charming century-old farmhouse that’s in good shape, but it has old wiring and perhaps lead-based paint too. Because it’s an antique with a tight floor plan, the kitchen is tiny and lacks a dishwasher. It is a genuinely affordable house and its current occupants love it, she said, but it could never pass a government inspection.

Subsidies have traditionally required locking in to a year-long government lease, Ayers said. (That is changing now, according to the Council for the Homeless, but the change is new.) Silver said the ability to rent on a monthly basis is the best protection landlords have against tenants who become problems.

Too many lower-income people turn out to be hard on properties and hard on landlords, Ayers and Silver said. And when it comes to multifamily properties, a problem tenant or two can poison a whole complex, even a whole neighborhood, Silver said. That’s why it’s preferable to have lower-income renters in single-family homes, not multifamily apartment blocks; but it’s also more difficult to accomplish, since renting a freestanding house is generally more expensive than renting a unit with shared walls.

“Risk is more than just money,” Silver said. “There’s not enough money in the world” to remedy tenants who break onsite rules as well as the law, who damage property and annoy their neighbors, who cause complaints and police calls, who get behind in their rent but cannot be evicted without a lengthy and difficult legal process.

Some landlords love subsidized housing, “but those tenants are higher maintenance,” said Ayers. “You have to be willing to put up with a lot of issues. You have to do a lot of hand holding.” That may include knocking on doors in person to collect rent, eyeball the upkeep of the unit and try to get a general sense of how tenants are doing, he said. Many landlords are not interested.

“I’m not a social worker. I’m not a welfare agency,” said Silver. “You can’t expect that of landlords.”

Incentives, education

While Washington state and federal housing laws prevent landlords from discriminating against any of the usual protected classes in American society — race, gender, religion, color, disability and so forth — there’s no law that prevents landlords from evaluating a prospective tenant based on their income, ability to pay, previous rental history including evictions and, of course, criminal convictions.

“Reviewing all that makes it seem like we’re picking on some people. But we need to be able to make smart decisions,” said Ayers. He is president of the Clark County Rental Association, which represents about 350 local landlords who own as many as 10,000 rental units.

“We have to look at the overall picture,” said Silver, secretary of the rental association. “How good a tenant is this going to be? We have to protect our properties, we have to protect our other tenants, we have to protect our other neighbors.”

Ayers and Silver are interested in — but skeptical of — a new $100,000 Landlord Risk Mitigation Fund that’s been set aside by Clark County to encourage landlords to take a chance on chancy tenants.

Even better than a risk pool for landlords, Ayers said, are the good-tenant classes, case management and other social services offered by low-income housing agencies like Second Step Housing. “Case management seems like the key, to me,” he said.

Kevin Hiebert of the Council for the Homeless is working to restart the round-table meetings that landlords used to hold with police to share safety issues and intelligence. And Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt recently held a meeting of all the key players, from Council for the Homeless officials to landlords, to brainstorm solutions to what “I honestly believe is a major problem,” Ayers said.

“If we (landlords) aren’t prepared to be actively involved in finding a solution,” he said, “we’ll have legislation forced upon us and that will ultimately raise the costs for everyone.”

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