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Aug. 6, 2020

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Crisis in Clark County rental market

There is no one solution to problem with many causes, but efforts by local officials are underway

By , Columbian Education Reporter
Published:
6 Photos
Audrey Miller moves from her rental house Aug. 23 in Vancouver. Miller and her roommate, Melissa Boles, struggled to find affordable housing in the area after their landlord sold their house.
Audrey Miller moves from her rental house Aug. 23 in Vancouver. Miller and her roommate, Melissa Boles, struggled to find affordable housing in the area after their landlord sold their house. (Greg Wahl-Stephens for the Columbian) Photo Gallery

Their little house in the Hough neighborhood was once perfect for Melissa Boles and Audrey Miller.

It was everything a pair of 20-somethings who had recently finished graduate school could want: space to have friends over, a small yard for Miller’s dog and a rent the two could afford.

“We totally loved it,” Boles, 27, said.

But this summer, that all changed.

In July, their landlord put the home up for sale, telling the roommates they’d have to find somewhere else to live.

“When they told us they were selling the house, it was devastating,” Boles said.

But both soon found they were unable to find a home they could afford, forcing Boles into paying half her monthly income for a one-bedroom apartment, and driving Miller to seek jobs and housing outside of the area.

Clark County’s rental market is in a crisis, and Boles and Miller are among the thousands of residents — both low-income and middle-class — who have been hit hard under the growing weight of housing costs.

Early last week, the Vancouver City Council approved new policies to protect renters, and thousands of multifamily units are slated to be opened over the next two years.

But those are only the first steps toward solving a wide-reaching problem. In recent months, dozens of low-income renters have been kicked out of their homes. Meanwhile, hundreds of families are on waiting lists for affordable apartments and Section 8 vouchers, which are given to the poorest renters to offset their housing costs.

“The numbers are staggering,” said Peggy Sheehan, a program manager in Vancouver’s Community and Economic Development Department.

And the current state of housing has people like Miller demanding answers and solutions.

“We have to really re-evaluate our regulatory environment for housing and development,” Miller, 26, said. “Are we building sustainable housing? Are we providing enough units that are available to low-income people? Are we providing options?”

How we got here

The numbers surrounding affordable rental housing in Clark County paint a stark picture of just how bad things have become.

The Census Bureau’s recent American Community Survey showed more than half of Clark County’s approximately 58,500 renters are cost-burdened by housing. What’s more, rental listing service ApartmentList.com reported last month that Vancouver’s rents are growing faster than anywhere else in the nation. An average two-bedroom apartment in Vancouver rented for $1,050 in August, the website reports, 15.4 percent more than last year.

“You’re sort of in that danger zone” where a medical bill or a car problem can pose an insurmountable financial challenge, said Andy Silver, director of the Council for the Homeless. “Any negative event and you’re going to lose that apartment.”

The crisis is also driven by the lack of apartments in Clark County. The rental home vacancy rate locally is 2.4 percent. The national average is 6.8 percent, according to the Census Bureau.

That means families, including the homeless, who would otherwise be eligible for low-income housing, can’t find a place to live simply because the space is not available, Silver said.

“It’s totally crippled our ability to help people who are homeless,” Silver said.

Clark County is far from alone in its housing crisis. On Wednesday, Portland Mayor Charlie Hales declared a state of emergency related to housing, saying the city needs to intervene quickly to address a lack of housing and shelters.

Nationwide, the number of households that spend at least half their income on rent — considered severely cost-burdened — could increase by 25 percent to 14.8 million homes over the next decade, according to a study released earlier this week from Harvard’s Joint Center on Housing Studies and Enterprise Community Partners.

Historical data from Clark County shows this problem has been ongoing–and disproportionately affecting the area’s most vulnerable residents–for years.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, recommends that only 30 percent of a family’s household income go toward housing. For a family of four, the median household income in the greater Portland-Vancouver metro area from 2008 to 2012 was $70,786. That family, therefore, should spend no more than about $1,770 a month on rent and utilities.

Housing data from that same time period shows that of the 21,680 local families making less than half the median income, about 84.1 percent were spending more than a third of their money on housing. A little more than half were doling out 50 percent of their income for rent.

The problem is only getting worse. Income growth is not keeping pace with rising rent. Rents have gone up 12.5 percent in the last five years, according to Clark County statistics. The median family income, according to HUD, only increased 3.8 percent.

The challenges

Despite incentives available for developers of low-income projects, building government-subsidized affordable homes is not cheap, said Roy Johnson, executive director of the Vancouver Housing Authority. There are additional legal and construction costs, and without the promise of high rent, returns on affordable homes can be far less than other types of housing.

“During the recession, there was that slowdown of construction,” Johnson said. “Now, private developers want to maximize the income they can get.” And that means higher-priced housing.

A lack of government policy and adequate planning for affordable housing has also contributed to the problem, Silver said.

“We haven’t really had people locally thinking in a sophisticated manner about how we build the right sort of mix of housing,” Silver said. “We don’t have affordability targets. We just aren’t up to where we need to be.”

At a peak?

Just as there is no sole cause for Clark County’s housing crisis, there is no one simple solution to the problem.

Fortunately, though, we may be on the brink of a turning point.

Clark County’s housing crisis appears to have reached its peak, Silver said. The current conditions of the rental market have gotten people talking, and local officials are trying to get a handle on the issue.

“There is enough that the community sees this as a real issue across sectors,” Silver said.

Efforts are well underway at Vancouver City Hall to create better protections for renters, particularly those affected most by the lack of available low-income housing. Reacting to the eviction of more than 100 families from Courtyard Village, a privately-owned, low-income housing complex that was sold and upgraded, the city formed the Affordable Housing Task Force. The group, which brings together public and nonprofit partners, has been brainstorming solutions.

“Courtyard Village was really the single event that I think made us realize we’re in a crisis,” said Chad Eiken, Vancouver’s director of community and economic development.

Spurred by the task force’s recommendations, the city voted on Monday to adopt three ordinances to protect renters. Once the ordinances take effect late next month, renters will receive more advance notice if evicted without cause or if their rent is increasing by more than 10 percent. Landlords can also no longer discriminate against families based on their income sources, protecting families who receive Section 8 vouchers for rent.

By the Numbers

Renters with a household income less than 30 percent of the median income: 11,640.

Rental units affordable to households with incomes less than 30 percent of the area median income: 2,700.

Renters with a household income more than 30 percent, up to 50 percent of the median income: 10,040.

Rental units affordable to households with incomes between 30 and 50 percent of the Area Median Income: 9,090.

Renters with a household income more than 50 percent, up to 80 percent: 13,170.

Rental units affordable to households with incomes between 50 percent and 80 percent of the Area Median Income: 19,455.

Renters with a household income more than 80 percent: 19,190.

Rental units affordable to households with incomes greater than 80 percent of the Area Median Income: 21,305.

“We’re feeling like we need to do something as quickly as possible,” Sheehan said.

The Clark County council, meanwhile, has not yet pursued similar action. County Senior Policy Analyst Axel Swanson, who sits on the task force, said Vancouver’s efforts are on the councilors’ radar and similar legislation may be considered in the coming months.

There are also more than 3,300 new multifamily units in the works within Vancouver, according to the city. Those range from affordable homes for the chronically homeless, such as the highly anticipated Lincoln Place Apartments, to pricey condominiums.

In unincorporated Clark County, there are 1,015 housing units in the works.

More apartments may ease some of the pressure on increasing rent prices.

“It’s definitely an unusual housing market right now with the inventory that low,” said Scott Bailey, regional labor economist with Washington’s Employment Security Department. “Inventory is really, really low right now throughout the metro area and in a lot of metro areas around the country, and that’s pushing prices up.”

‘Living in poverty’

Evictions from Courtyard Village and Ghim Village, both of which are owned by Seattle-based Madrona Ridge Residential, have dominated headlines in recent months. Dozens of low-income families have been forced from their homes, scrambling to figure out their next step.

And though Boles and Miller may not be the typical image that comes to mind of those affected by Clark County’s housing crisis, their experience points to its growing impact.

It’s been a little more than a month since the pair moved from the house they loved, with trucks loaded up by emotional friends late last month.

“There was a lot of crying,” Boles said of the roommates’ move.

Boles, an adviser at Clark College, has found herself living in a one-bedroom apartment at about $1,000 a month — nearly half of her monthly income.

Miller, who was working at Washington State University Vancouver, was unable to find a home she could afford on her $27,000 annual salary — about 56 percent of the median federal income for a single person — or a job that paid better. She moved home to live with her father on Whidbey Island.

“I just don’t want to continue living in poverty,” she said.

“Here I am at the end of it and I have nothing to show for it,” said Miller, who moved to Vancouver seven years ago to attend WSU. She once believed the city would have more opportunities for her. Now, she feels it was a mistake.

From 2010 to 2015, Clark County’s median family income increased by 3.8 percent, according to HUD, lagging behind the average price of rent for a two-bedroom rental home, which increased by 12.5 percent.

Something needs to change so Clark County can build its middle class, Miller said. Or else more people will seek better opportunities elsewhere.

“I invested a lot of time here,” she said. “I didn’t need to do it.”

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