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March 1, 2024

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Vancouver reviews status of affordable housing

Councilors say city, state can’t build way out of crisis

By , Columbian politics reporter
4 Photos
K West Apartments, a 192-unit complex being built by DBG Properties, is the largest infusion of affordable housing to date that uses the city’s tax exemption program.
K West Apartments, a 192-unit complex being built by DBG Properties, is the largest infusion of affordable housing to date that uses the city’s tax exemption program. Amanda Cowan/The Columbian Photo Gallery

Affordable housing in Vancouver is not yet easy to come by, but compared with the last few years, the market and resources are finally rebounding. Kind of.

The housing vacancy rate in Clark County is now 5 percent, up from 2 percent, but it’s still the lowest in the Vancouver-Portland metro area. Multnomah County, Ore., for example, is at 6.4 percent vacancy.

Rents are also stabilizing — but remain out of reach for many in the city. The median cost peaked in June 2017 and now rests at $1,220 for a one-bedroom unit and $1,437 for a two-bedroom. The income needed to afford a two-bedroom apartment is $57,480 annually. That figure was only $39,040 in 2014. The median income in Vancouver is $52,004, more than $5,000 shy of the income needed to afford housing.

More than half of renter households are also cost-burdened, meaning they spend 30 percent or more of their income on rent.

These figures were presented to the Vancouver City Council on Monday evening as part of an update on affordable housing and opportunities for improvement.

There are 4,224 units in the pipeline — the price of 553 of those will be based on income — and 1,651 are under construction now.

But as the council pointed out, the city can’t build its way out of the affordable housing crisis.

Councilor Bart Hansen said when the city first began really taking a look at affordable housing a few years ago, the party line was if you build more units, prices will go down. Essentially, Hansen said, supply and demand would fix the problem.

“What we’re seeing now is the availability is going up and the price is not going down,” he said.

It turns out, at least in Vancouver, supply and demand is not enough to remedy the housing crisis.

“People are struggling with paying their rent every day,” said Peggy Sheehan, the city’s community and economic development programs manager. “There has been some trickle down that’s rumored to happen, but we aren’t seeing it.”

Sheehan added the city is still giving rental assistance to some who are paying $500 to rent a single room in a house.

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“I don’t know where the sweet spot is going to be,” she said. “We haven’t reached that yet.”

Councilor Alishia Topper said the entire state has learned it can’t build its way out of the housing crisis.

Although Vancouver has started to bring in new development and employers that will in turn bring more housing and better-wage jobs, the payoff is still years away.

“That takes a really long time,” Topper said.

In the meantime, the city is continuing to work on incentives to encourage more affordable housing as well as consider creative policy changes.

Amended zoning codes, for example, that reduce the minimum lot size required for homes or no longer requiring multifamily housing built in commercial zones to include first-floor retail space.

The city also plans to focus much of its 2019 legislative agenda on affordable housing. Potential legislation includes further expanding the multifamily tax exemption program, a local option to reimburse construction sales tax on multifamily housing and allowing the Real Estate Excise Tax to be used for income-based housing.

Columbian politics reporter