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Sept. 25, 2022

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Clark County’s rising rents lead to despair

Amboy family struggles to find alternatives after landlords demand 150% increase

By , Columbian staff writer
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Jason Zellman and Luci Haning are seeing a 150 percent monthly rate increase from the landlords of the house they rent.
Jason Zellman and Luci Haning are seeing a 150 percent monthly rate increase from the landlords of the house they rent. (Will Campbell/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

AMBOY — Jason Zellman and Luci Haning have no idea where they’re going to live next.

The couple live in a yellow single-wide home for $800 a month in Amboy, in the forest with a view of a mountain. The three of them, the couple and Haning’s child, have lived comfortably in the home for three years.

Their landlords, whose home is just across a field and a road, increased the couple’s rent to $2,000 last month. Now piles of boxes full of Zellman’s life, including his beloved Transformers collection, are stacked on the floor. They have not paid the bill yet and they don’t plan to.

Clark County is experiencing a huge increase in rental rates in homes and apartments. An average two-bedroom apartment now costs $1,687, up $100 monthly from last year, according to CoStar, a commercial real estate information company.

The dramatic increase in Clark County leaves renters like Zellman and Haning feeling helpless. The family has been unable to secure a new home because of a lack of affordable housing and few legal protections, so they’re faced with either paying the 150 percent increase or losing their home.

Although the couple are seeking assistance from local programs to make the transition more comfortable, Zellman said that legal and financial assistance is limited for people like him.

“We don’t have savings,” Zellman said. “We’re going from check to check right now. I mean, we’re surviving.”

A compounding issue

In February, Zellman contracted COVID-19 when traveling for work out of state, so he was unable to pay rent in cash, which he said is how the landlords require it. It was the beginning of issues that have snowballed: The family received eviction warnings and was charged late fees, but everything compounded when the landlords raised their rent.

“Luci (Haning) and I are not going to pay $2,000. Period,” Zellman said.

Although their situation is severe, others are also dealing with steep increases. The average cost for an apartment in Clark County has increased by $652 in the past 10 years, according to Mike Wilkerson, director of analytics with ECONorthwest.

But for single-family rental houses like Zellman and Haning’s, the rental increases aren’t as tracked because it’s only available through 2020 Census data. Wilkerson said the data is also self-reported and tends to be skewed lower than professionally managed properties.

There are some resources available for those who might be on the brink of losing their home, but they have specific requirements for qualification.

The Vancouver Housing Authority provides opportunities to people who experience barriers to housing because of income, disability or special needs. Section 8 with the VHA includes both Housing Choice Vouchers and Project Based Vouchers, helping low-income families afford housing. Families would need to pay between 33 percent and 50 percent of their income for rent.

Clark County also operates eviction prevention rental assistance programs to help low-income folks who have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The programs, through Council for the Homeless, were established in 2020 and are still serving people. Referrals for 1,000 additional households opened on Wednesday. Households may only receive assistance once, and funds must support current housing, not be used to fund new housing.

“Rent is going up,” said Saeed Hajarizadeh, executive director of VHA. “Sometimes landlords don’t even state reasons for those decisions. We don’t have rent control in our state.”

Not much to do

In early July, Zellman and Haning sat in their dining room, struggling to plan next steps. Late notices, agreements and charges sat in a red folder atop the table.

Legally, there’s little the family can do because of the lack of protection offered to tenants in the state of Washington. Landlords can raise rent with no limit, as long as they provide notices to the tenants in advance, according to Racheal Myers, executive director of Washington Low Income Housing Alliance.

Myers said she’s been hearing more stories like Zellman and Haning’s since the pandemic eviction moratorium ended in June 2021.

“The reality is landlords have every right to do that,” Myers said. “I think everybody’s rushing to increase rents as much as they can because they can.”

The landlords served Zellman and Haning papers requiring payment within 14 days or else they would be evicted. However, any eviction has been put on hold: Zellman said they’re now working with Share Vancouver, a nonprofit that can provide assistance for low-income families, on the case.

However, the family is still concerned for the future.

“Any landlord should not be able to do this sort of thing to anyone,” Haning said.

Helping the problem

In Washington, unlike Oregon, landlords can increase rent as much as they want as long as they give a 60-day notice.

Oregon’s laws allow up to a 7 percent increase, plus inflation costs, every year above existing rent.

In Washington, Myers and the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance are working to create more laws for tenants. The alliance has worked to push House Bill 1904, introduced in 2022this year by Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds, which would prohibit landlords from raising rents more than 3 percent annually, unless the landlord provides the tenants with at least six months’ notice.

Though the bill didn’t pass in the last session, Myers said that she plans to return next year to reintroduce it in a similar format.

“It would give them a little bit more time to figure out how they were going to respond to this 150 percent increase,” Myers said.

Myers said to reduce hardships like Zellman and Haning’s, oftentimes cases that lead to homelessness, communities need to have a more robust network of rental assistance programs.

“One thing like a car breaking down or a job loss, or any emergency can mean being homeless within a month,” Myers said. “Homelessness is traumatic and terrible, and it’s really hard to come out of once you find yourself homeless.”

She also suggests building more housing units run by nonprofits and community-based organizations intended for people with lower income.

Why the increases?

While there is certainly price gouging happening in the county, many if not most developers and building owners are having to increase their rates for many reasons.

David Copenhaver is a member of the Vancouver City Center Redevelopment Authority, a group that advises the city on development strategy. He said developers’ profit margins have been squeezed down in the past decade because of labor cost increases, increased land costs, taxes and material expenses — a supply chain issue that the pandemic only made worse.

He said that if there were to be a rental cap in place, it would likely hurt new development in Clark County and deter the growth spurt and economic boom that’s outpacing many counties and cities in the country.

“Essentially, that will stop development,” Copenhaver said. “If we start capping rents, we won’t see any more quality development. Not here.”

He also said that the process of creating new development is multifaceted, and developers can’t pay off building new apartment units that rent for less than about $1,000 a month. Creating new housing in the area means considering many different partners, such as lenders, investors, renters, jurisdictions and community consumers. They all have to benefit — a delicate balancing act, he said.

Outside of new development, Copenhaver said that rental increase in older single-family homes is “the Wild West right now.”

“It just shocks me,” he said. “I see that as a growing problem.”

Moving forward

In the search for housing, Zellman and Haning hope to stay near Woodland High School so their 16-year-old daughter can continue at the place she’s been attending for three years and not separate her from friends. But Zellman said that he feels it’s impossible to find a spot nearby that’s affordable.

Vancouver was recently ranked one of the worst cities to live in for affordability and rental markets — the city is listed as 175th out of 182, according to data provided by WalletHub, a personal finance website. Zellman said they’ve been on the hunt for a place to live for weeks and have endured some scams in the process.

“It’s caused so much stress. We’re in boxes,” Zellman said. “It’s just really, really hurt us.”

With the eviction on temporary hold thanks to rental assistance, the couple are unsure how long they have left in the house, but Zellman is hoping for enough time to plan for next steps.

“We want nothing more than to be able to leave. But we need time to raise funds,” Zellman said. “I’ve never been in a position to not know how I’m going to take care of my family and put a roof over their heads.”

Columbian staff writer

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