Various financing partners and public funders, including the city of Vancouver, Clark County and the Vancouver Housing Authority, also helped make the project possible.
“Families need safe, stable, affordable and accessible housing,” said Clark County Treasurer Alishia Topper at the grand opening. “Health care is a big piece of that. So I am so glad to see both of those two sectors here today.”
Addressing the intersection of health care and housing is a priority for the partners at Columbia Heights.
“If you wake up every day wondering about the next night or whether you’re going to be able to maintain the housing you have, that’s your sole focus,” said Liz Cattin, PeaceHealth’s network director of community health. “It’s hard to engage in work, it’s hard to engage in school, it’s hard to engage in any other aspect of your life, including preventive health care.”
Through their 69 low-income apartments, Mercy Housing and PeaceHealth hope to provide the stability necessary for families to build healthy lives. So far, 19 families have already moved into the complex. Families will continue moving in over the coming weeks. Although Columbia Heights is still accepting applications, there are no more available units at this time.
Creating a community
Building community is another priority at Columbia Heights. The property has a community room with a kitchen, a computer lab, outdoor walking paths and a playground. Residents have access to various programs, including health and wellness, housing stability, financial stability, resident engagement and after-school programs.
“We do programs in all those areas pretty much daily,” said Pepper Washington, resident service manager for Mercy Housing Northwest, “whether it be like a blood pressure monitoring session for the seniors, or health care like vaccines, or something like that.”
Columbia Heights is bridging cultural barriers, as well. About half of the families moving into the apartments are Ukrainian refugees escaping war in their home country. The refugees were connected to Columbia Heights through a local Ukrainian church.
Tetiana Maleiko, a 33-year-old Ukrainian woman, moved into an affordable unit with her 8-year-old daughter on July 19. She came to the United States in April, traveling through Mexico.
“We arrived just when the war in Ukraine was very strong,” Maleiko said in Russian as she sat on a bench by the Columbia Heights playground, where her daughter was running around with other neighborhood kids. “Everything is great here. Wonderful.”
Columbia Heights has a Russian-speaking staff member who helps translate for residents.
Even as the new complex helps these families rent homes they can afford, demand for affordable homes in Vancouver continues to far exceed supply.
For every 100 households earning 50 percent or less of median income in the Portland metro area, which includes Vancouver, there are only 43 affordable and available rental units, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. About 78,000 more affordable and available rental units are needed to meet the demand for low-income people in the area.
The Columbia Heights apartments filled up about three weeks after opening its applications in May, said Veronica Madrid, area director of operations for Mercy Housing Management.
“The first day our leasing trailer was open, there was a line of people waiting to get in,” Madrid said. “And we get calls all day long every day asking if we have any units available. We have a lot of traffic.”
Going forward, Mercy Housing and PeaceHealth hope to continue developing affordable housing in Vancouver, though there are no concrete plans, said Mercy Housing Northwest President Joe Thompson.
“Rents are rising so much faster than wages. That rent burden becomes a bigger and bigger burden for the families,” Thompson said. “It is a long road to develop and finance affordable housing.”
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.