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Sept. 21, 2023

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Rising rents create a conundrum in Clark County

Tenant advocates urge caps; landlords say that would worsen housing shortage

By , Columbian staff reporter
3 Photos
Saree Adams, a tenant at Rockwood Terrace in Washougal, sits in her two-bedroom apartment where she has lived for 10 years. The complex recently raised rents by nearly $400 for some residents, an increase of about 40 percent. Adams and many other residents say they cannot pay the new price.
Saree Adams, a tenant at Rockwood Terrace in Washougal, sits in her two-bedroom apartment where she has lived for 10 years. The complex recently raised rents by nearly $400 for some residents, an increase of about 40 percent. Adams and many other residents say they cannot pay the new price. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Saree Adams has lived at Washougal’s Rockwood Terrace, an affordable apartment complex funded through the federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, for 10 years. She has always paid her $976 rent on time and in full, she said.

But come December, she has no idea how she will pay. Adams is facing a rent increase of nearly $400 next month, about 40 percent higher than what she pays now.

“We’re low-income, we’re elderly, we have children, we’re disabled,” Adams said. “Do you really want to be the person that, just before Christmas, hands out eviction notices to a bunch of low-income people in a small town?”

Many Washington residents have faced rent increases since the state’s eviction ban ended last year. Rents have risen almost 14 percent in Clark County since 2019, according to data compiled by the Washington Post.

These rent increases are legal in Washington, a state where rent control is prohibited.

For some tenants being priced out of their homes like Adams, preventing landlords from significantly raising rents may seem like an obvious solution. “The biggest problem we’ve got in Washington is there’s no rent cap,” Adams said.

Rising rents

Saree Adams, a tenant at Rockwood Terrace in Washougal, sits in her two-bedroom apartment where she has lived for 10 years. The complex recently raised rents by nearly $400 for some residents, an increase of about 40 percent. Adams and many other residents say they cannot pay the new price.Rising rents create a conundrum in Clark County
Saree Adams has lived at Washougal’s Rockwood Terrace, an affordable apartment complex funded through the federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, for 10 years. She has…
Saree Adams is facing a nearly $400 rent increase beginning next month for her low-income Rockwood Terrace apartment in Washougal.Critics: Affordable housing metric in Vancouver-Portland area unrealistic, unfair
If Washougal resident Saree Adams doesn’t pay a $389 rent increase at her low-income Rockwood Terrace apartment beginning in December, she could become homeless, she…

Yet rent control, also called rent stabilization or rent caps, is a highly divisive topic among many policymakers and advocates.

While tenant advocates like the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance and the Washington Tenants Union support a rent cap, landlord advocates like the Clark County Rental Association and the Partnership for Affordable Housing stand against it.

“It’s not going to be this magic wand, but we need rent control,” said Violet Lavatai, executive director of Washington’s Tenants Union. “It’s going to help a lot of people, mostly the low-income and elderly.”

The Tenants Union runs a hotline that Lavatai said gets about 30 calls per day. She estimated about 75 percent of these calls are from tenants with rent increases they can’t afford, the majority of whom are from Black and brown communities.

“You’re talking about elderly people in their 80s who call our hotline begging us, is there anything we can do? You can’t. There’s no rent control,” Lavatai said.

The debate

Washington Rental Housing Association President Sean Flynn compares rent control to a vampire in a scary movie. “Just when you think it’s dead, it rises from the dead to harass people,” he said.

Flynn primarily represents for-profit mom-and-pop landlords. He says rent control would hurt renters in the long term, as developers and landlords would have less incentive to invest, causing an already limited housing supply to shrink even more.

“Nine out of 10 economists agree price controls are a bad idea. It distorts the market,” Flynn said. “If you regulate it and make it harder to do, you will get less people doing it, and the product becomes more expensive. It’s like Econ 101.”

A 2021 report by the economic consulting firm ECONorthwest analyzed the potential implications of rent control in Washington. The report was prepared for Washington’s Partnership for Affordable Housing, a nonprofit organization that stands against rent control.

“Washington state already has many policies that delay and influence the cost of development of new housing,” the analysis states. “Rent control would add another barrier, lowering operating income from new units and making new housing projects less feasible.”

Mike Wilkerson, director of analytics at ECONorthwest, contributed to the analysis. “What the research initially revealed is that rent control has some adverse impacts,” Wilkerson said.

But there were some limitations to the analysis, he added. “What that research didn’t necessarily study is the range of applications for which rent control policies can be very stringent or more flexible.”

Wilkerson thinks less stringent rent stabilization policies, like those aimed at preventing price gouging by landlords, could be helpful to renters, but only if they are crafted in a way that does not deter new construction.

“It can be an effective tool, I think, as part of a broader, more comprehensive set of policy reforms that are really addressing the underlying cause of the problem, which is not having enough units of housing,” he said.

There is general consensus among housing experts that more housing is necessary to lower rental costs in the long term. Flynn says the best way to achieve this is through a free rental market, he said.

Lavatai disagrees, arguing that the market, left unregulated, has proven harmful to tenants in the past. “I’ve always thought of it as some form of abuse of power,” she said. “You get these rent increases, and the renters didn’t get a pay raise.”

This is the case for Adams, who said she has no feasible way to earn an extra $400 per month to cover the rent increase. In 1996, Adams was hit by a semi-truck and suffered a traumatic brain injury that prevents her from holding a job.

She gets $615 per month of disability insurance, she said. Her husband, who is retired, helps her out with her housing costs.

“I have no idea where I’m going to come up with that money,” Adams said. “I have been thinking, there’s a piece of land that we used to use as a dog park. Find out who owns that and see if I can set up a homeless camp on it.”

She and other Rockwood Terrace residents are considering abandoning their homes before Dec. 1 to avoid getting evictions on their records, which would make it nearly impossible to qualify for low-income housing in the future, Adams said.

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In Lavatai’s view, rent control would resolve these types of conflicts by leveling the playing field between landlords and tenants, especially tenants on fixed incomes. “We pay the rent and they don’t increase it,” Lavatai said.

Lessons from across the river

In 2019, Oregon became the first state to implement statewide rent control, prohibiting landlords from raising rent more than 7 percent plus inflation in any given year. To mitigate negative impacts on housing supply, the policy exempts units that are less than 15 years old.

It’s too soon to know how successful Oregon’s policies have been, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the market, Wilkerson said. But he thinks — if done right — this form of rent stabilization could be useful in preventing landlords from raising rents to unreasonable amounts.

Overall, Wilkerson said Oregon is a good model to follow because rent control has been balanced by other policies aimed at increasing housing supply. “The combination of all of those things is generally minimally impactful on new construction, but does provide a measure of tenant protection,” he said.

Tenant advocates in Portland, however, argue Oregon’s policy did not go far enough.

“What Oregon has is not really rent control,” said Lauren Everett with Portland Tenants United. “It’s a price gouging control mechanism, which is still good.”

Because of high inflation in 2022, Oregon landlords will be able to raise rents up to 14.6 percent next year under the state’s policy.

“For a lot of people, that’s a huge amount of money,” Everett said. “That’s going to result definitely in displacement, homelessness, people having to not spend money on medical bills, food.”

Michele Thomas, Washington Low Income Housing Alliance director of policy and advocacy, also thinks Oregon’s cap is too high. “I would not want Washington to just replicate what Oregon did,” Thomas said. “That said, Oregon tenants are certainly better off than Washington state tenants right now.”

Washington’s next steps

Currently, there is no proposed state legislation that would create any form of rent control. During a visit to Vancouver on Monday, Gov. Jay Inslee said rent control “hasn’t been seriously considered in the state of Washington.”

Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds, said it has been a topic of conversation in the Legislature, however. In the next legislative session, Peterson, who chairs the Housing Committee, plans to re-introduce a bill that would require landlords to provide six months’ notice for rent increases above a specified amount.

The bill was introduced last session, but never made it through negotiations. “To me, it was just a matter of fairness,” Peterson said. “There was a lot of pressure put on from the landlord lobby to kill the bill. And unfortunately they were successful, obviously. But we’ll be back.”

Though this bill falls short of proposing a rent cap, Peterson said there will be other bills that will go further.

“We don’t have anything pen to paper yet, but I know we’ve been talking about lifting the moratorium on local governments being able to make rent control decisions,” he said. “Right now, the city of Vancouver can’t decide to do rent control because we have a statewide prohibition on that. So there is talk about removing that so there’s more local control in those decisions.”

The Clark County Rental Association and the Washington Landlord Association, meanwhile, are pushing back against statewide movement toward rent control.

“Our small landlord owners provide affordable housing for the public and already have way too many restrictions placed on them via the governor and the legislatures,” Clark County Rental Association President Sue Denfeld wrote in an email statement. “More and more landlords are selling their properties due to these restrictions which seriously impacts affordable housing.”

Instead of rent control, Flynn thinks housing vouchers on a state level could be a more effective way to prevent eviction. The vouchers would function like the federal Housing Choice Voucher program, or Section 8, which provides subsidies to families to ensure they are paying only 30 percent of their income on rent and utility costs, he said.

“The problem with Section 8 vouchers is, the wait list is excruciatingly long,” Flynn said. “What I propose is, why don’t we have one from the state that you can stack on top of Section 8?”

Peterson agrees that more vouchers should be part of the solution. But he doesn’t think it’s a perfect answer for families currently facing eviction due to rent increases.

“There are plenty of people that get vouchers, and they can’t find a place to live,” Peterson said. “There’s still a lot of stigma around Section 8 vouchers, and a lot of landlords that will not accept Section 8 vouchers.”

Though Washington’s policymakers, tenants and landlords may disagree on solutions, they largely agree that unaffordable rents are a problem in the state, and the answer requires tackling the issue from multiple angles.

“It’s going to be kind of an all-hands-on-deck approach this session,” Peterson said. “I think housing is going to be a huge focus for us this year.”

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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.

Columbian staff reporter