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March 31, 2023

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Fine line between housed, homeless for many in Clark County

Rising rents, too little affordable housing, long waiting lists often make finding home a matter of luck

By , Columbian staff reporter
5 Photos
James Donahue, left, and Stella Kirkman chat outside Miles Terrace, an affordable housing development for low-income seniors where they live. Kirkman said if she hadn't gotten a unit at Miles Terrace, she would likely be living in her car.
James Donahue, left, and Stella Kirkman chat outside Miles Terrace, an affordable housing development for low-income seniors where they live. Kirkman said if she hadn't gotten a unit at Miles Terrace, she would likely be living in her car. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

When it comes to finding affordable housing, Vancouver resident Stella Kirkman feels like she got lucky.

Before the pandemic, Kirkman, 61, had been living in 13 West Apartments in the Esther Short neighborhood paying $845 per month on rent. When the state eviction moratorium lifted last year, her rent went up to $947 per month. This December, it will increase again to $1,100.

“My income’s only $1,400. So I would not have been able to renew my lease, I couldn’t afford to live there,” Kirkman said.

She had applied to get her rent subsidized through the federal housing choice voucher program, or Section 8, without success. She’s been on the Vancouver Housing Authority’s Section 8 waitlist for eight years. “I was always number one thousand and something on the list, even seven years in,” she said.

Then a new subsidized housing complex for seniors called Miles Terrace opened near downtown Vancouver in July, providing below-market-rate rentals for people 55 and older. Kirkman got on the waitlist and, with her good rental history and high need, was able to get a spot in one of the 69 units.

“They had hundreds and hundreds of people apply, so there’s a long waiting list already,” she said. “I feel very fortunate and blessed.”

Along with many other Miles Terrace residents, Kirkman gets her rent subsidized through the Vancouver Housing Authority’s rent subsidy program, which uses U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funding to ensure she pays only 35 percent of her gross income on rent.

“If this place didn’t exist or the rental assistance program, I wouldn’t have been able to afford anywhere else,” Kirkman said. “We’re forcing people out into the street wondering why we have a houseless crisis. This is why. The cost of rent.”

The affordable housing deficit

Not everyone is as lucky as Kirkman. As market-rate rents continue to rise, more Clark County residents struggle to find housing they can afford.

Though government entities, nonprofit organizations and private developers have taken steps to create more affordable housing, underproduction is an ongoing issue that is difficult to fix.

Clark County’s Fair Market Rent, a metric developed by HUD to determine the amount of housing assistance people can receive, has climbed to $1,610 for a one-bedroom apartment in fiscal year 2023. This is more than double what it was 10 years ago, when a one-bedroom unit was $766.

Wages haven’t kept pace. The median hourly wage in Clark County in 2013 was $22.86, adjusted for inflation, according to Washington’s Employment Security Department. Median hourly wage in 2021 was $27.01 — an increase of just 18.2 percent.

The result has squeezed renters. Meanwhile, affordable options are few.

There are only 43 affordable rental units available for every 100 very low-income households in the Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro metropolitan area, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s annual Gap Report.

This totals to a 77,931-unit deficit of affordable housing in the greater metro area. Nationwide, there are 58 affordable units available for every 100 very low-income households, the report found.

This issue isn’t new, but it has gotten worse over time, said Clark County Treasurer Alishia Topper. “The tipping point for the affordable housing crisis happened right after the Great Recession,” Topper said. “There was nearly a halt of new construction projects occurring, and we still had population growth.”

This resulted in low vacancy rates in the county, Topper said. “You’re talking about supply and demand. So the market responds. And what does that mean? They raise rents because there’s a demand for it.”

Challenges of closing the gap

A complex combination of economic and political factors — insufficient funding, lack of land, construction costs and zoning policies — makes the affordable housing gap difficult to close.

“There were a handful of things that have led to this kind of perfect storm of just being totally oversubscribed,” said Lisa Vatske, multifamily housing director at the Washington State Housing Finance Commission.

The commission, which allocates federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credit dollars to developers, has about three times the demand for affordable housing resources than what it is able to provide, Vatske said.

This resource shortage is partly due to the amount of financing needed — since affordable housing itself is generally not a profitable industry, government incentives are often crucial to incentivize development.

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“Because it’s so costly, you need six to 10 layers of financing to get these deals,” Vatske said. “Then trying to align whatever the local levy priority is with the state trust fund priority with our program’s priorities. I mean, I’ve spent my whole career trying to align these resources.”

Rising construction costs and supply chain issues are also barriers to creating more affordable housing.

“Our project costs have just gone through the roof,” said Victor Caesar, development director for the Vancouver Housing Authority, a main player in developing and subsidizing low-income housing in Clark County.

The authority’s Fourth Plain Commons project, for example, saw a $1.1 million increase in lumber costs between its design phase and its construction drawing phase nine months later.

“An increase of that amount put the project in jeopardy of not moving forward,” Caesar said. Fortunately, the Washington Department of Commerce awarded the authority with additional funds to cover the increase.

Supply chain issues have delayed nearly all of the authority’s projects, Caesar said. Its Central Park Place renovation project was delayed two months after a small piece for the air conditioning system didn’t arrive on time. Another project was delayed when the housing authority couldn’t get enough refrigerators.

Lack of land is also an issue when it comes to finding locations to develop housing.

“If there is vacant land, that typically means there’s something wrong with it,” Caesar said. “Clark County has a lot of wetlands, and building on wetlands is not ideal.” Building on subpar land further increases construction costs, he added.

High stakes

As development happens slowly, Clark County residents who cannot afford rising rents are facing risks of homelessness.

Kirkman was homeless for about six months in 2018. She lived in her car for three weeks before moving to Share Orchards Inn, a shelter for families and single women operated by the nonprofit organization Share.

While at the shelter, Kirkman got an administrative job at a commercial property management company, which enabled her to apply for a unit at 13 West Apartments. The apartment had a three-month waitlist, which meant another three months in the shelter. Finally, with Share’s help, she moved into her new home.

Then the pandemic hit. Kirkman was working at an Amazon warehouse operating a forklift when she got sick with COVID-19 in April 2020. The virus gave her conjunctivitis that impaired her vision. “It caused lesions in my eyes and blood vessels that they couldn’t remove,” she said. “I couldn’t perform my job.”

She had to stop working, and now lives off long-term disability from Amazon. But the disability income wasn’t enough to pay her rising rent. “It’s either pay rent and eat bologna for a week, or not pay my rent and possibly get evicted, but maybe I’ll eat a little bit better for the week,” she said.

If the Miles Terrace opportunity hadn’t come along, she would be living in her car again, she said.

‘A vicious cycle’

For Kirkman, the crux of the housing crisis comes down to rents that are simply too high. Washington is one of 26 states in which rent control at a state level is illegal and local governments are prohibited from enacting any type of regional rent control.

While Washington’s tenant advocates argue a rent cap is necessary to prevent residents from being priced out of their homes, economists and landlord advocates argue rent control would not solve the underlying issue of housing underproduction.

Kirkman thinks capping rent increases would help low-income renters like herself who are often living paycheck to paycheck.

“They need to put a cap on the rent in the state. Let people catch up,” she said. “You just can’t get ahead. If your income goes up a little bit, then they raise your rent. It’s a vicious cycle.”

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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 and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit