Economic indicator reports arrive regularly in a newsroom.
Unemployment, durable goods, home sales, retail sales, manufacturers’ shipments, construction spending — that sort of thing. A government agency issues most of the reports. They’re worthy of at least a moment or two of mulling on their once-a-month delivery schedule.
One report in recent months has piqued my interest. That would be the Apartment List, which features rental data on rates for one- and two-bedroom apartments.
Since at least February, the Apartment List has shown Vancouver rental rates exceed those in Portland. The data the organization issued last week showed median rents in May in Vancouver at $1,410 for a one-bedroom apartment and $1,670 for a two-bedroom. For Portland, it’s a median $1,130 for a one-bedroom apartment and $1,330 for a two-bedroom.
Furthermore, the Apartment List report published June 3 said rents in Vancouver have increased at a 1.9 percent pace over the previous 12 months compared to a 1.5 percent pace nationally. And, nationwide, the median two-bedroom rent is $1,190.
But I’ve scratched my head at the Vancouver-to-Portland comparison. Could rental rates in Vancouver really be more than 20 percent higher in Vancouver than Portland? After all, the Regional Multiple Listing Service Report usually shows Clark County median sales prices about 10 percent less than those in the Portland metro region.
After spending a couple of days last week talking to housing industry officials and economists, the answer to the question of whether Vancouver rentals are more expensive than those in Portland rates as a solid maybe. It’s more certain that a shortage of affordable rental units persists. But the $42 million, seven-year Affordable Housing Fund — approved by Vancouver voters Nov. 8, 2016 — is providing more units for low-income households within the city who earn 50 percent or less of the area median income.
The fund thus far has backed 12 projects with 394 units that are either under construction or in planning, estimated at about $97 million, of which $7 million is contributed by the city. Another $2.4 million is paying for rehabilitation of five properties totaling 179 units; $2.7 million is spent on housing assistance and services with three nonprofit groups; $700,000 has been spent on housing acquisition, totaling 37 units; and about $630,000 has been spent on shelter preservation with three nonprofit groups, providing for 126 total beds.
Peggy Sheehan, Vancouver’s community development program manager who leads the team that manages the Affordable Housing Fund, said, in addition to the fund, Vancouver is seeing gains in adding affordable units through its Multi-Family Housing Tax Exemption Program. That program, updated in 2016, thus far is responsible for nine projects totaling 631 units that have either been constructed, are underway or are planned, Sheehan said.
Proactive policies such as the housing fund are necessary to inject more affordable units into the pipeline for a growing city like Vancouver, said Sierk Braam, one of the two founders of the Housing Initiative LLC, a development subsidiary of Clark County’s nonprofit Council for the Homeless.
“It’s unlikely we’ll be able to build ourselves out of the problem,” Braam said. “But we can’t do nothing or it will just get worse … nonprofits and for-profits need to provide as much affordable housing as we can.”
In addition to the Affordable Housing Fund, the city also offers property tax exemptions of eight, 10 or 12 years to developers for projects that include a component to set aside units for low-income residents.
Portland-based DBG Properties LLC has used some form of the tax exemption program to build three projects in Vancouver: 15 West at 410 W. Mill Plain Blvd.; 13 West at 1300 Columbia St.; and K West at 5500 N.E. Fourth Plain Blvd.
A one-bedroom unit in 15 West and 13 West is $917 and a two-bedroom unit is $1,098; at K West, it’s $917 to $1,100 for a one-bedroom and $1,098 to $1,250 for a two-bedroom, according to the projects’ websites.
“Vancouver is very pro-development, especially for affordable housing,” said Melora Banker, project manager with DBG Properties LLC. “That just makes a very friendly environment to build.”
Banker questioned whether Vancouver’s median rents could be higher than Portland’s. But it’s possible, she said.
Josh Lehner, economist with the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis, had his doubts that Vancouver’s median rents could exceed that of Portland’s.
“I think the big issue here is we don’t have great data on rents,” Lehner, a former research analyst with the Vancouver-based Columbia River Economic Development Council, from 2005 to 2007, said in an email to The Columbian. “The Apartment List, or any other site, only has listings and therefore data on a slice of the overall market.”
Lehner noted that the real estate website Zillow shows Multnomah County, Ore., rents exceeding those in Clark County for the most recent 12 months available: $1,535 for multi-family in Multnomah and $1,375 in Clark, according to Zillow.
The Apartment List “are fairly confident in our data,” said Chris Salviati, housing economist for the San Francisco-based website.
Salviati said the site and its nationwide ranking used not only data from apartment listings but from the U.S. Census.
For Matt Friesen, the question of whether Vancouver rental rates are higher or lower than those in Portland is an academic discussion. A 25-year-old who is trying to save enough money with his wife to buy a house, Friesen just knows the rates are too high.
Friesen, a personal trainer based in Portland and his wife, a soon-to-be high school teacher based in Longview, have a one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment at StoneBridge Crossing at 2301 N.E. 81st St., in Hazel Dell. They moved in about a year ago at $1,215 a month and plan to renew their lease for another year, paying $1,300.
“It’s definitely not ideal,” Friesen said, listing a variety of expenses including student debt.
Still, they are working with a financial planner and saving toward a goal of buying a house — perhaps even next year.
“Hopefully, we have our strategy in place,” he said. “We’re trying to save each month … We love Vancouver. We both grew up here. We’d love to stay in Vancouver if we can afford it.”