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Dec. 6, 2022

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Demand outpaces resources in Clark County as post-pandemic evictions climb

Clark County advocates strive to keep renters in homes, but need exceeds available assistance

By , Columbian staff reporter
Published:
3 Photos
The Eviction Resolution Pilot Program took effect in Clark County in December 2020. Community Mediation Services, the organization that carries out the program in the county, experienced an influx of cases last November when the state's pandemic protections for tenants ended. Community Mediation Services does outreach to tenants facing eviction providing information about the program.
The Eviction Resolution Pilot Program took effect in Clark County in December 2020. Community Mediation Services, the organization that carries out the program in the county, experienced an influx of cases last November when the state's pandemic protections for tenants ended. Community Mediation Services does outreach to tenants facing eviction providing information about the program. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

When Washington’s eviction ban ended in June 2021, residents braced for an eviction “tsunami” due to unpaid rent that had piled up during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In much of the state, the tsunami never arrived. Washington’s eviction filing rate this year is projected to be 46.2 percent lower than the rate pre-pandemic in 2016, according to the Northwest Justice Project — a sign the state’s rental assistance programs and legislation protecting renters have had their intended effects.

Renters in Clark County, however, face a different reality.

Eviction filings in the county are projected at 5.2 percent lower than 2016 levels, which — though an improvement — is a far cry from the state’s nearly 50 percent decrease. About 10.9 percent of Washington’s eviction cases occur in Clark County, even though the county has only about 6.6 percent of the state’s population.

“Clark County was extraordinarily successful in providing rent relief for tenants,” said Ben Moody, housing programs managing attorney for the Clark County Volunteer Lawyers Program. “But we’re still seeing about twice as many evictions as we should.”

These numbers are on the rise. The county saw 68 filings in April, according to court records. That number reached 89 in May, followed by 90 in June and 113 in July. The county has had a total of 698 eviction filings against residential tenants this year, as of Aug. 25.

Some other counties are also experiencing similar or higher rates compared with 2016, including Ferry, Jefferson and Pacific. These counties, however, are much less populous than Clark, meaning their numbers of eviction filings remain far below Clark County.

Only King and Pierce counties have had more eviction filings this year than Clark County. Yet, in contrast to Clark, these counties have seen a notable decrease in filings since before the pandemic. King County’s eviction filings are projected to fall by 58.7 percent compared with 2016, while Pierce is projected to fall by 45.4 percent.

Housing experts are not yet certain why eviction filings have remained so high in Clark County. Savenia Falquist, executive director of Community Mediation Services, which facilitates dialogue between tenants and landlords across the county, speculates it could be due to the county’s high density of multifamily units.

“The bottom line is, I just think we have more properties that fall under the rental category,” she said.

Another significant factor is rising rents. During the eviction moratorium, landlords were not allowed to increase their rents. But now, in a state without rent control, rents have been rising as landlords try to make up for money lost during the moratorium.

Eighth-worst for renters

Vancouver was rated the eighth-worst place in the country to rent a home in a recent report from WalletHub, in part due to the city’s tight rental market and high cost of living. The average rent for a Vancouver apartment is $1,699, according to RentCafe. Only 2 percent of the city’s apartments rent for $1,000 or less.

Jeffrey Keddie, managing attorney for the Northwest Justice Project, an organization that provides free legal assistance for low-income people, said nearly all Clark County eviction cases he has seen in the last six months have been for people facing rent increases they could not afford.

Clark County used to be a more affordable option for lower-income renters than more densely populated counties, Keddie said. In 2016, for example, median rent in Clark County was $1,158, while King County’s was $1,485, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey data. Median rent measures the point at which half the rents in the county are higher and half lower.

“Compared to other places where the costs were already high, say Snohomish County or King County, folks already couldn’t live there,” Keddie said.

In other words, lower-income people who had already been priced out of those counties are now being priced out of Clark County, too. The result: a higher concentration of evictions.

The number of Clark County renters forced out of their homes might even be higher than suggested in the data; informal evictions are not counted.

“There are many cases that never go to the docket because people never respond to the paperwork, and they’re simply defaulted. So they lose without ever going to court,” Moody said.

Others leave their homes as soon as they receive a 14-Day Notice to Pay Rent or Vacate, not realizing this does not in fact mean they will be evicted in two weeks. In reality, this notice means landlords are able to file eviction lawsuits in court when the 14 days are up.

“When you tag a door with a 14-Day Notice to Vacate, I believe a lot of people took that literally, and they fled the home,” Falquist said.

But with rent help, legal assistance and negotiations with landlords, some residents with eviction notices are able to stay in their homes.

‘Hard to keep up’

Natasha, a 31-year-old Vancouver resident whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, received an eviction notice in November 2021, right after the statewide bridge proclamation offering some protections to tenants expired.

Natasha was living in a three-bedroom town home with two roommates, managed by an apartment management company. She had been working as an administrative assistant at a church in Portland but lost her job at the beginning of the pandemic when the church could no longer afford to pay her.

“It was hard to keep up with bills and stuff without having a steady income,” Natasha said. She and her roommates, who also lost their jobs during the pandemic, fell behind on their rent.

Along with the eviction notice, Natasha received a phone number for assistance. She and her roommates called the number and were connected with the Eviction Resolution Pilot Program, a statewide initiative providing mediation services between landlords and tenants at no cost. The program launched in December 2020 in six counties, including Clark, where it is implemented by Community Mediation Services.

With the help of the mediators, Natasha and her roommates worked out a plan with their landlord that enabled them to avoid an eviction filing.

BY THE NUMBERS

698: Number of eviction cases filed against residential tenants in Clark County as of August 25. (Source: Clark County Clerk’s Office)

Eviction filings in Clark County so far this year: 68 filings in January, 99 filings in February, 87 filings in March, 66 in April, 89 in May, 90 in June and 113 in July (Source: Washington State Administrative Office of the Courts)

About 10.9 percent of Washington state’s eviction cases occur in Clark County, despite the county having only about 6.6 percent of the state’s population. (Source: Washington State Administrative Office of the Courts; U.S. Census Bureau)

Eviction filings in Washington this year are projected to be 46 percent lower than in 2016; in Clark County, eviction filings have fallen by just 5 percent compared to 2016. (Source: Northwest Justice Project)

“It definitely took the weight off our shoulders just to know that there was someone fighting for us,” she said.

Now, Natasha is caught up on her rent. She started a new job in June and feels she has her financial situation under control.

‘Extremely vulnerable demographics’

Not all mediation cases end like Natasha’s. Falquist recalled working with a 72-year-old client who fell behind on rent following a rent increase. Falquist exhausted all her resources, but was unable to find a way to keep her client out of eviction court.

This story is not unique; evictions are disproportionately impacting people on fixed incomes, such as senior citizens, people with disabilities and low-income households with children, Falquist said.

“Those are an extremely vulnerable demographics of folks,” she said. “If you make $1,400 a month on disability or on Social Security, you’re not going to even be able to pay rent.”

Clark County vs. Washington

Median rent, statewide: $1,337; 47.7 percent of residents with 30 percent or more of income going to rent.

Median rent, Clark County: $1,328; 46.8 percent of residents with 30 percent or more of income going to rent.

Clark County

    • Occupied housing units, 2020: 178,478 in Clark County
    • Owner-occupied units, 2020: 119,725 — 67.08 percent
    • Renter-occupied units, 2020: 58,573 — 32.82 percent

Statewide

  • Occupied housing units: 2,905,822 in Washington
  • Owner occupied: 1,838,059 — 63.25 percent
  • Renter occupied: 1,067,763 — 36.75 percent

Source: Census Bureau’s American Community Survey 2020

Once someone on a fixed income falls behind on rent, it’s difficult to catch back up, she added. “It only takes a medical bill, a breakdown of a car, something that would cause someone to have to debate the decision to use an earlier check to cover that.”

Inflation is only adding to this challenge. The annual cost-of-living adjustment for people on Social Security doesn’t kick in until the new year. “So these price increases are coming before there’s any increase in their income,” Keddie said. “As prices get higher and higher, more and more low-income folks are priced out of the market.”

Small landlords suffer the consequences of eviction, as well. Community Mediation Services has seen several instances where mom-and-pop landlords, struggling to pay for maintenance and mortgages, have had to take out loans to cover unpaid rent.

“People think that these landlords are wealthy. They’re not,” said Quinn Posner, a local landlord attorney involved in the county’s mediation program. “You get these landlords who are fearful of losing their homes, losing their investment that would get them through retirement.”

‘Right to counsel’

In addition to the Eviction Resolution Pilot Program, Clark County has several other initiatives in place to help renters.

In April 2021, Washington became the first state to enact legislation ensuring low-income tenants have access to a lawyer in eviction cases, known as “right to counsel.” Landlords are also required by state law to give their tenants a “reasonable repayment plan” for rent payments that accumulated during the eviction moratorium. This gives renters flexibility to catch up on their missed payments.

Since March 2021, Clark County has received more than $61 million in funding through the Treasury Rental Assistance Program. Most of this money has gone directly to rent and utilities assistance, providing aid to 5,810 households, according to the county’s community services department.

But even as Clark County rallies to assist tenants, demand is outpacing available help.

“The need is incredible,” said Sunny Wonder, deputy director at the Council for the Homeless, a nonprofit that is distributing the county’s rental assistance funding. “The reality is that we need more of these services to be able to address the need that we’re seeing.”

Helping tenants avoid eviction is one way Clark County can prevent further homelessness in the area, especially as affordable housing stock remains limited.

“It’s always a balance to try to ensure, of course, that we’re quickly moving folks out of homelessness. But on the other side of that, that we’re preventing folks from slipping into homelessness,” Wonder said.

Get help

If you are a Clark County resident fearing eviction, call the Council for the Homeless Housing Hotline at 360-695-9677.

Additional resources can be found at www.councilforthehomeless.org/emergency-shelter

Saeed Hajarizadeh, deputy director of the Vancouver Housing Authority, noted the city’s subsidized and near-market-rate housing units are between 97 percent and 100 percent occupied, meaning there are almost no vacancies for affordable housing at the moment.

He and his staff are trying to figure out what types of rent nonpayments are most common in the area so they can better address the problem before people are evicted.

“Affordable housing is extremely hard to find,” Hajarizadeh said. “So we’re trying to keep everyone housed where they are.”

Community Funded Journalism logo

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 columbian.com/cfj.

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