Monday, October 26, 2020
Oct. 26, 2020

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High rent a problem throughout Clark County

Those looking for better deal in smaller cities often out of luck

By , Columbian Business Reporter
Published:

“If you can’t stand the rent, get out of the city.”

If only that were true.

Those looking for inexpensive housing in Clark County won’t have much luck in its smaller cities, where the median rent is actually higher than it is in Vancouver — spreading the affordable housing crisis to the corners of the county, from Woodland to Washougal.

“Things are pretty tight right now,” said Vancouver Housing Authority spokesman Steve Towell. “Here in Vancouver, it’s running a 1 to 2 percent vacancy rate, depending on where you are. I know it’s not any better as you move out from Vancouver.”

A quick search for outlying apartments and homes proves that shortage is a reality. And the few units that are available aren’t cheap or getting cheaper.

“Families that are living in our houses ask us to hold rent increases down as much as we can because they’re stretched to their limit and they don’t have any options,” said Keith Pfeifer, an agent with Southwest Washington real estate broker FBR Realty, which has rural properties. “When we do get a vacancy, we raise the rent, and as soon as we advertise, we’re just inundated with applications.”

And it might get worse before it gets better.

“There have been studies out that indicate this tight rental market for this area may be with us for up to 10 years,” Towell said. “If that holds to be true, it’s not a matter of gritting our teeth, holding our breath and hoping it improves — it means we have to start looking at some long-term solutions to that.”

The diagnosis is pretty simple: When the housing market collapsed seven years ago, population growth did not.

Census data shows that between 2003 and 2007, an average of 500 new apartment units were built each year in Clark County, which seemed to keep up with demand.

In 2008 and 2009, fewer than 200 total units were built.

“We fell way behind in providing housing supply during the recession,” Pfeifer said. “It definitely is impacting the smaller cities. That’s a standard progression in these types of recoveries — we see it recover in urban areas and it moves out.”

Building is picking up, though new single-family homes — as compared to multifamily dwellings such as apartments and duplexes — have seen a better recovery. However, not a lot of developers are building starter homes.

“Here on the West Coast, market-rate homes for sale are probably a little out of range for ‘affordable,’ ” Towell at the VHA said. “One of the things that helped make a shortage, especially in the rental market, stems back to the recession and a lot of folks who lost their homes to foreclosure had to look for rental places.”

Camas conundrum

Camas Mayor Scott Higgins worries his teenage children won’t be able to live in their hometown if they want to stay after they finish school.

“We want to be able to create an environment where people who grow up here can stay here,” Higgins said, but being such a desirable place to move to can hinder those efforts.

“When you start getting all those accolades, it works against affordable housing,” he said.

High demand for living in Camas is driving prices up, and City Administrator Pete Capell said even some city employees drive in from Washougal.

That’s not to say Washougal is drastically more affordable, even though the median home value is $75,000 less than in Camas, at about $220,000. At $1,071, the median monthly rent is actually a little greater than the $1,036 average in Camas.

Rule of thirds

Using the general rule that housing shouldn’t take more than 30 percent of your income, renters in outlying towns need to make $2,700 a month (that’s in Woodland) to $4,000 a month (that’s for Ridgefield) to comfortably afford the median rent.

“If those housing costs become more than 30 percent of your income, that begins to put stress on your family,” Vancouver Housing Authority spokesman Steve Towell said. “At that point, a family is starting to have to determine what bills they’re going to pay and which ones won’t be paid.”

Still, using the median means half of the units are going to be more expensive and half are going to be less expensive. Just how far the price range goes in either direction is anyone’s guess, but no one is expecting rents to start falling anytime soon.

— Brooks Johnson

Where affordable housing may be truly out of reach is Ridgefield, where $300,000 homes are the norm and multifamily housing is all but nonexistent. Whereas about half of Vancouver residents rent, just 20 percent do in Ridgefield. And as in Camas, any new multifamily housing there likely isn’t considered affordable.

Subsidized housing is available in smaller cities, just as it is in Vancouver. VHA runs complexes in Camas and Battle Ground, though the waiting list is extensive, Towell said. There are also 77 households using housing vouchers in Battle Ground, 40 in Camas and 33 in Washougal.

But with increasing competition for dwindling tax credits and grants, VHA can’t be the only answer to affordable housing.

“We as an agency are not going to be able to do it by ourselves,” he said. “It’s going to take everyone in the community coming together on this and looking for solutions.”

Pfeifer pointed to policy as the driver, and maybe the solution, of the affordable housing crunch.

“The disappointing thing for me is when I’m dealing with a buyer or a renter and they ask me, “Why is it so expensive, and why don’t you build houses on bigger lots?’ ” the real estate agent said. “I tell people this is all a result of regulation. They’re paying a lot more for a product they don’t like as well.”

Pfeifer said state regulations such as the Growth Management Act and stormwater rules work against affordable housing. And rules on the VHA, such as having to pay the prevailing wage, make it more expensive for that agency to build affordable housing compared with private builders, Towell said.

So it may be up to cities to decide what kind of housing they want. With higher-density housing comes the potential for higher crime rates and lower property values, however, so that leaves little incentive for some cities to take that route.

“We can direct building wherever we want by the fees we charge,” Battle Ground Mayor Shane Bowman said during a city council discussion Nov. 2. “If we want more multifamily, that’s what we’ll get.”

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