Vancouver eyes affordable housing remedies

Courtyard Village Apartments evictions spur council to discuss ways to protect low-income, vulnerable tenants

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter

Published:

 

Alarming Numbers

A new report from the Washington Department of Commerce has underlined just how tough the affordable housing picture is throughout the state and in Clark County. Among its findings:

• Thirty-six percent of Washington households are cost burdened (spending more than 30 percent of income on housing) and 15.2 percent are severely cost burdened (spending more than 50 percent on housing). In real terms, that's 936,260 households cost burdened and 390,000 households severely cost burdened.

• Washington state has a deficit of 327,136 "affordable and available" housing units.

• Since 2000, incomes in Washington state have declined by 2.4 percent while median rents have increased 7.8 percent.

• Low-income households are projected to be the fastest-growing population demographic in Washington state in the next five years.

• Puget Sound and Vancouver have the highest rents in the state (upwards of $900).

• The apartment vacancy rate in Clark County is between 1 and 2 percent. Market watchers usually consider 5 percent a healthy balance.

• In Clark County there are just under 32,000 low-income renter households.

• At current rates of state population growth and housing construction, it will take 30 years to provide enough affordable housing for all.

Source: Washington State Housing Needs Assessment 2015, Department of Commerce.

Alarming Numbers

A new report from the Washington Department of Commerce has underlined just how tough the affordable housing picture is throughout the state and in Clark County. Among its findings:

• Thirty-six percent of Washington households are cost burdened (spending more than 30 percent of income on housing) and 15.2 percent are severely cost burdened (spending more than 50 percent on housing). In real terms, that’s 936,260 households cost burdened and 390,000 households severely cost burdened.

• Washington state has a deficit of 327,136 “affordable and available” housing units.

• Since 2000, incomes in Washington state have declined by 2.4 percent while median rents have increased 7.8 percent.

• Low-income households are projected to be the fastest-growing population demographic in Washington state in the next five years.

• Puget Sound and Vancouver have the highest rents in the state (upwards of $900).

• The apartment vacancy rate in Clark County is between 1 and 2 percent. Market watchers usually consider 5 percent a healthy balance.

• In Clark County there are just under 32,000 low-income renter households.

• At current rates of state population growth and housing construction, it will take 30 years to provide enough affordable housing for all.

Source: Washington State Housing Needs Assessment 2015, Department of Commerce.

The Vancouver City Council will hold a one-hour workshop to start exploring affordable housing issues and remedies — what can be done to build more and to protect vulnerable tenants from displacement — beginning at 4 p.m. today in the council chambers at Vancouver City Hall, 415 W. 6th St.

Looking at what other jurisdictions have done will be key to getting something done here, councilor Alishia Topper said.

“In my opinion, we are so far behind on this issue,” she said. “To do nothing would be really unforgivable.”

The issue leapt to the fore in December, when so-called “no cause” notices to vacate in 20 days started going out to dozens of households at Courtyard Village Apartments, a complex of buildings at 2600 T St. in the Rose Village neighborhood of central Vancouver. New owner Metropolitan Land Group of Beaverton, Ore., and its local subsidiary, MF Parc Central, are renovating the 151-unit complex and plan to raise the rents.

These are called “no-cause” terminations because, by law, no reason is required. Twenty days’ notice is perfectly legal throughout most of Washington.

“There is zero morality in this,” said resident Kelly Britt, 56, a disabled U.S. Army veteran who’s facing, with his wife and two daughters, a deadline of the end of this month. The rent on the Britts’ current unit is rising from $750 to $1,100 a month; the family’s housing voucher is worth $889 a month.

“If I found an $1,100 apartment today, I couldn’t take it, because I can’t afford it,” Britt said. He halfway expects to wind up in a homeless shelter, he said.

Market watchers and community leaders have called the Courtyard Village Apartments situation the tip of an iceberg. Renters at other developments have reported that, while they haven’t received notices to vacate, they have been notified that rents are rising; some have said that leaves them no real choice but to double up with family and friends.

Now, city policymakers will begin a search for solutions that would protect the lowest-income, least able tenants from sudden displacement, as well as encourage the construction of more affordable housing in Vancouver.

“Our housing market is broken right now,” Andy Silver, the executive director of the nonprofit Council for the Homeless, told a public forum earlier this month. What jobs pay, what landlords charge and what incentives there are for developers to build new affordable housing “do not match up,” he said.

“The problem is projected to grow worse over the next few years,” regional labor economist Scott Bailey noted in a recent report. “There simply isn’t enough affordable housing, whether provided by the private sector or through some kind of housing subsidy.

“How will local communities respond to this issue?”

Silver is urging everyone to show up at City Hall today. The workshop won’t be an open public dialog, he said, but a packed council chamber will make a strong point.

Meanwhile, Silver and other activists from Clark County — including Topper — lobbied legislators in Olympia on Feb. 17, which was coined Housing and Homelessness Advocacy Day. Hundreds turned out from across the state — but they know the hurdles ahead are high because of other pressing priorities, Topper said.

Transportation and education funding needs are getting the most attention so far this year, she said. On Feb. 17, advocates responded by stressing that those issues “don’t work in isolation. Kids can’t be successful in school, people can’t travel to work and earn a good income without stable housing.

“Housing is the heart of our economy,” she said.

Nearby examples

Oregon law requires landlords to give 30 days’ written notice to any month-to-month tenant who’s being required to vacate with no cause. If the tenant has been there for more than a year, the legal requirement is twice that: 60 days’ notice if you’re being displaced with no cause.

“Thirty days is just not enough time to look for housing, to fill out applications, to get approved, to pack up and move,” said Justin Buri, the executive director of the Community Alliance of Tenants, an Oregon advocacy group. “Thirty days is nothing. The difference between 30 and 60 days is everything. The time to go looking is everything.”

Seattle has various ordinances aimed at protecting tenants from sudden displacement. Its Just Cause Eviction Ordinance requires that landlords give “good cause” in writing for ending a month-to-month tenancy — and it specifies the only 18 reasons that are allowed.

Another Seattle ordinance says any landlord who wants to displace renters in order to substantially redevelop, rehabilitate or alter a property must get a Tenant Relocation Assistance license. In addition to payments of $3,255 in relocation assistance to low-income tenants who qualify, the ordinance also requires a specific schedule of multiple advance notices to all tenants. The whole process can take 90 days or longer before anybody has to leave.

And yet another Seattle ordinance requires landlords who intend to hike the rent 10 percent or more to give tenants 60 days written notice.

On the construction side, possibilities may include new taxes for a new local housing trust fund, zoning laws that require affordable housing with every market-rate development, fee waivers for nonprofit and public projects, and lowered income and rent limits on some apartment units.

Both Seattle and Portland also have various provisions to soften the blow for tenants when apartments are converted to condominiums — including advance notice, relocation assistance and giving current tenants the right of first refusal to buy their converted units.

Statewide possibilities

The Washington Low-Income Housing Alliance is pushing three proposals in the Legislature this year. The two proposals that made it out of committee before Friday’s cut-off were:

o The Fair Screening Tenant Act (HB 1257), which ensures that a landlord cannot charge a rental applicant for a new screening report if that tenant has supplied a current one.

o The Truth in Evictions Reporting Act (SB 5376), which ensures that evictions cannot be reported if the eviction suit has been sealed by a court.

The third proposal, Source of Income Discrimination Protections, did not make it out of committee. It would have prevented landlords from categorically denying housing to renters using lawful housing subsidies or income supports, like government housing vouchers, to pay the rent.

The housing alliance, and local housing advocates like Silver, have also called for $100 million for the state Housing Trust Fund, which provides grants and loans to low-income housing projects.