Wednesday, February 1, 2023
Feb. 1, 2023

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Apartment rents soaring in Clark County, outpacing wage growth

High-end construction projects, influx in population pushing up demand and forcing many out

By , Columbian Innovation Editor
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Joel Moon is one of tens of thousands of people in Clark County dealing with the increasing apartment rental rates, which have nearly doubled in the past 10 years.
Joel Moon is one of tens of thousands of people in Clark County dealing with the increasing apartment rental rates, which have nearly doubled in the past 10 years. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Joel Moon never thought living in Vancouver would be this straining as he seeks an independent life, and now he’s considering leaving for good.

Moon, 22, works graveyard shifts, many of them 12 hours long, as a packer at Frito-Lay. His average workweek of 65 hours allows him to earn more than $40,000 a year, but he pays $1,312 in rent at his one-bedroom apartment near Mountain View High School.

“I can never save enough money,” Moon said. He dropped out of Clark College when the pandemic began because it was too expensive, but one day he hopes to resume his education and become a teacher. “I think moving away from Vancouver and finding somewhere with a lower cost of living would be great.”

Moon is but one of thousands of local tenants experiencing increased housing costs. There are 31,600 apartment units in Vancouver, according to CoStar, a commercial real estate information company, and most renters are dealing with increasing rents: In 2011, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Vancouver was $684 a month. At the end of last year, it was $1,343.

With rent hikes outpacing wage growth, tenants are working more, moving to a more affordable city, living with roommates longer or moving back in with their parents. Many tenants can’t save enough for a down payment on a house.

Meanwhile, a construction boom is adding apartments to the market, but at higher rents. The new tenants are moving to Clark County and Vancouver from out of state, mostly California and Oregon.

Some of Moon’s neighbors are remote workers who work for California-based technology companies, he said. For them, rents — and home prices — are relatively cheap compared with their former communities.

“I think Vancouver is gentrifying,” Moon said. “I feel we’re going to be the next California.”

Fueling construction

Michael Wilkerson, partner and director of analytics at ECONorthwest, studies housing markets in Vancouver, where he lives. He said the city has drastically changed in the last five to seven years, a trend that will likely continue.

Wilkerson said the increased rental rates are being partly driven by new, costlier construction of taller and more dense apartment buildings on Vancouver’s increasingly expensive land.

“We’re seeing new development, scale, density and height of the buildings,” he said. “All is predicated on rents high enough to support price of land and higher-density buildings.”

In 2012, local population growth started to pick up speed as the economy recovered from the Great Recession. Vancouver drew people with its tax advantages, its historically low housing and rent costs, and its school quality. Plus, the Pacific Northwest is a draw in general for so many other reasons, he said.

“There’s a good and a bad side to high rents. It allows construction to happen,” he said. “Rent being high enough to support construction has fueled a lot of development. If rent hadn’t increased, we wouldn’t see new construction.

“It’s not a matter of if you can stop increasing rent, but when and how to slow it down. I expect rent to slow its increase.”

Leah Halstead is the director of property and asset management for the Vancouver Housing Authority. One of its goals is assisting people who struggle to pay rent, mostly those who are on the threshold of homelessness.

She said the nonprofit has 3,399 people using rental assistance vouchers.

“Our housing choice voucher holders are finding it harder to find housing because rates are high, supply is still relatively low and turnover has declined during the eviction moratorium,” she wrote to The Columbian in an email. “We have a higher demand for subsidized housing as the ‘naturally occurring’ affordable housing disappears and people on fixed income are priced out.

“We have a higher demand for our tax credit housing because the 60 percent (area median income) rental rates are now well below market rents. This was not the case 15 to 20 years ago when we first started developing this type of housing.”

When the state’s eviction moratorium and ‘bridge’ program end at the end of September — if they are not extended — people who can’t keep up with rising rental rates could be squeezed out of their homes. Some who don’t qualify for or learn about assistance programs may end up homeless.

Landlords are able to increase apartment rents because the demand is so high. Even so, many small local landlords are not earning a return on their investment because of the restriction on evictions.

Landlords sell out

In some cases, small local landlords are selling their properties because it’s too hard to show a profit and sale prices of investment properties are at a peak.

Jeffrey Gibbons owns a handful of small rental units in Clark County. He said he tries to raise rents only when a unit is vacated because he knows how locals are struggling with rising rates. He said he has a unit in Vancouver he could rent for $1,650, but he rents it for $1,035 a month.

“We have some people pretty close to the edge,” he said. “When we turn over a unit, we go to market rate.”

Gibbons said he’s lost money because of the eviction moratorium: One tenant cut off communication and left after 11 months of not paying, he said. Incidents like that are causing smaller, more generous landlords to get out.

“A lot of landlords are selling out,” he said. “They can get a fortune out of it now. COVID was too much.”

Gibbons, who works at Portland International Airport, said a few of his co-workers decided to buy cheaper property in Longview and commute the 50 minutes each way to PDX.

“I grew up in the San Francisco area, and I commuted a long way into work,” he said. “Now we’re going into that here as well. You can buy a two-bedroom, one-bathroom house in Longview for $250,000. Affordable housing? I hate to say it, but there it is.”

Population grows

Vancouver’s population increase is driving rental rates; more demand fuels higher prices.

An estimated 13,600 people moved to Clark County during the pandemic, according to the Washington State Office of Financial Management. About 4,900 people moved to Vancouver last year.

Wilkerson said there are 31,600 apartment units in Vancouver, and at least 1,000 more are in development or the planning stages.

“Very few of those are going to be ‘affordable,’ ” he said.

Dylan Rogers is one of the former Vancouverites who moved away because rent is too expensive. He now lives in La Grande, Ore., and it “feels more normal,” he said.

Readers sound off on rent

As part of researching this story, we asked our Facebook followers to share their experiences with the local rental housing market. The post went viral, receiving more than 500 comments. We’ve sampled a few below to give readers an idea of what’s on renters’ minds:

Jennifer Cerveny Miller: I don’t know of a case where raising rent is never an issue.

Campbell Amy Brown: My one-bedroom apartment is $1,350 plus whatever they decide to charge for the community fees each month. In 2015, my larger and much nicer apartment was $750.

Tyler Howell: Housing is a major crisis that continually gets swept under the rug. Now we need a plan of action, and action to be taken, instead of shrugs and hand-wringing about the issue.

Lexie Sullivan: I just moved to Arkansas from Vancouver. Rent is so much cheaper here, and I get paid more as well! $780 for a three-bedroom!

Angel Kettwig: In 2014, I moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Cascade Park, and it was $975 a month. Stayed there seven years and finally left this year at $1,525 per month.

Matt Rollins: Seven years ago, my old apartment was renting for $945. That same apartment today is $1,350. Ask me if my wages went up by 50 percent. Spoiler alert: They haven’t.

Tanisha Anderson: When I was 18, I could afford a one-bed, one-bath apartment while working part time. Now at 29, I couldn’t afford that same apartment while working full time. We need to address the rising rent costs.

Levi Thomas Gellatly: Would like to see rent rates compared to the landlord’s expenses/property taxes. Being a landlord is meant to be profitable. Do we destroy businesses because the demand is higher than the supply? Or do we make it more accessible to build more housing?

Synthia Cole: Housing is a diminishing commodity. With the massive influx of people moving to the area, mainly from California, it’s driving demand up while supply is limited. Washington has one of the higher minimum wages in the country, further driving up prices. The cost of everything has gone up in the past 10 years. Groceries have more than doubled, housing, taxes, basic commodities and entertainment. If the area was undesirable, no one would move here, and inflation would slow.

Felicia Dowd: I wish I had a solution, but I don’t. What I do know is that several people are stuck in a bad home environment and can’t find or afford a place on their own. I also don’t even know how the younger generation is (if) they are living in apartments or on their own. We need to find a solution, and we need to implement it quickly !

Crystal Irwin: It’s not just affordable housing. It’s any housing. Any rental at any price point we’ve looked at (except maybe millionaire) has 20-30 applicants within a couple of hours of being posted, even the ones I probably wouldn’t normally consider.

Lisa Nelski: So many friends from my church are moving to cheaper areas like Eastern Washington and Texas.

Kathlene Collins: My grown kids who are working full time have to live at home because rent takes the majority of their paycheck. We moved from Hawaii 27 years ago so that we didn’t have to struggle. With the rising cost of living here, it’s still a struggle.

Laura Henderson: I can relate. I do cat rescues. People can’t afford the pet fees, so they leave them behind. Very sad, and cruel.

Carmen Martin: You can bet wages didn’t double in that same time frame that housing costs did.

Afton Gwen Rainey: We’re all told to live within our means, but what do you do when housing becomes beyond your means? That’s one of the major contributing factors to the rise in homelessness. Not to mention all of the single parents or single-income families who can’t afford to pay for housing and all of the other living expenses.

Alex Boyer: People saying “supply and demand” should know there are 1,700 apartments available on in Vancouver, and five were under $1,000.

Rogers, 22, said he works at Starbucks and splits his $600 apartment rent with a roommate to save for Oregon State University’s tuition, where he hopes to enroll in about a year and a half. Living in La Grande, and pursuing remote learning from OSU, Rogers can live an affordable lifestyle in the small Eastern Oregon city, where he sees himself settling permanently.

“With everything being online now, you don’t need to be in the center of things,” he said. “You have the classic small-town feel with diners and a drive-in movie theater, but you also have the mainstream restaurants.”