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News / Clark County News

Living on the edge: Clark County’s high rents leave many vulnerable renters on verge of homelessness

By Mia Ryder-Marks, Columbian staff reporter
Published: August 5, 2023, 6:14am
2 Photos
Judy Laughery, 83, walks Sissy, her long-haired chihuahua, outside her apartment complex. After a $600 rent increase that she cannot afford, Laughery is uncertain about her future. She is paying $1,970 for her unit, not including utilities.
Judy Laughery, 83, walks Sissy, her long-haired chihuahua, outside her apartment complex. After a $600 rent increase that she cannot afford, Laughery is uncertain about her future. She is paying $1,970 for her unit, not including utilities. (Photos by ELAYNA YUSSEN for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Judy Laughery opened her internet browser, and a poll popped up on her screen.

“How concerned are you about becoming homeless?”

“Very concerned,” Laughery, 83, clicked, a response she never thought she would select.

Despite working all her life, planning for retirement and earning $2,500 a month from Social Security, Laughery feels she is on the brink of homelessness.

A retired registered nurse, Laughery said she recognizes some people might not understand her fears about the future, but the reality is that she and thousands more like her in Clark County are making tough financial choices in order to afford housing. Residents across Clark County, including Laughery, pay more than half of their monthly income for rent, a scenario that, according to standard affordability measures, means they are “severely cost burdened.” Across the country, a more acceptable measure is to spend about a third of one’s income on rent.

“With $2,500, I shouldn’t be worrying about being homeless or applying for food stamps,” she said. “But somehow I am.”

As rental costs swell across the state — some due to landlords attempting to match fair market rates in the aftermath of Washington’s eviction moratorium — tenants say that without rent increase ceilings they are left living on the edge.

In the past year, Laughery’s rent has increased over $600; in August, she began paying almost $2,000 (accurate with fair market value) for the two-bedroom apartment she has called home for more than a decade. That’s almost 80 percent of her monthly income.

After utilities, internet, apartment insurance, groceries, medication co-pays and the cost to care for her service dog, Laughery will have less than $2 to last her the rest of the month.

A widow, Laughery has lived almost paycheck to paycheck since her husband, Gary, died 13 years ago. She has no savings; all was spent after her husband’s cancer diagnosis.

Since receiving her latest rent increase notice in June, Laughery tried to re-budget her expenses and called every housing hotline she could find for help.

But she learned she makes too much for food stamps and low-income housing and too little to bear the cost of moving, which would include paying for a van rental, movers, first and last month’s rent and a deposit.

“I make too much to get help and too little to live. I’m stuck. I’ve hit a wall,” Laughery said. “And I’m scared.”

How did we get here?

Sue Denfeld, president of the Clark County Rental Association, said most of the rent increases tenants see now are landlords playing catch-up with inflation costs after Gov. Jay Inslee’s eviction moratorium lifted.

Inslee imposed the moratorium during the height of the pandemic to protect renters from eviction in the event of missed or late rent. Rent increases were frozen during moratorium.

“One of the main factors is that (landlords) have not been able to raise their rent close to fair market value in 2½ years with COVID,” said Denfeld. “Yet taxes, food, repairs, maintenance and utilities have all been consistently going up with property taxes.”

When the eviction moratorium ended, property owners began increasing rent to meet fair market value. Denfeld said small landlords — people who often own and rent out a few properties — usually increase rent gradually and keep tenants in consideration.

Under state law there is nothing preventing landlords from raising rents substantially to meet fair market value or to recoup an investment on the property — the purpose for many landlords to own rentals.

“I know often landlords look into ‘how is this going to affect my existing tenants,’ they take that into consideration,” said Denfeld. “But (landlords) need to make enough to make it profitable for them to continue to have their units on the market.

“And some renters have the impression that the landlord is out there, raising the rents and then going on a big vacation. But I don’t see that. Our (landlords) are sometimes also struggling to just stay in there and keep good tenants in there.”

‘Who profits from that?’

But without pandemic protections, residents spend a greater share of their paychecks on rent, leaving them more vulnerable to a sudden financial emergency. That’s because while rent and cost of living have increased, wages in Clark County haven’t kept pace.

Data from Washington’s Low Income Housing Coalition compares median salaries with rental prices. In 2023, the data underscored the increasing disparity between affordable housing and income in Washington.

Clark County residents need to make more than $30 an hour or work 79 hours a week at a minimum-wage job to afford a one-bedroom apartment, according to the coalition report. At a fair market rate, a one-bedroom apartment in the county averages $1,610.

A single mother of two, student and a disabled veteran, Duana Ricks makes around $1,900 a month through part-time work and veterans payments. Two years ago, after moving from Oregon to flee domestic violence, she qualified for a Section 8 housing voucher in Vancouver.

Section 8 tenants pay on average about 30 percent to 40 percent of their income to rent, and the housing authority pays the difference. Ricks’ rent is $1,575; her portion is about $500. But in August, her rent went up $300.

“I know a lot of people might think that rent increases don’t impact people on Section 8, but it does,” Ricks’ said. “It ends up trickling down, and I end up paying more out of pocket.”

She is searching for a more affordable place to live. Ricks said that lower-income residents often face difficult decisions with high rent prices.

“If I work more hours, then my income will go up, meaning my portion of rent will go up,” she said. “I’m doing this constant juggling act. Do I work more hours so I can feed my kids or not work so my housing stays lower? It just sticks you in this perpetual cycle of poverty because you get penalized for trying to do better and be better. Who profits from that?”

Priced out

Clark County residents who work jobs paying the state’s minimum wage, currently $15.74 an hour, should pay, according to the affordability standard, $818 a month.

“The average worker not only can’t save their money for any rainy day; but they also can’t be as nimble to respond to an emergency — whether that’s a health crisis, a reduction of the work hours or the needs of the children that emerge unpredictably,” Michele Thomas, director of policy and advocacy for the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, said. “They become extremely vulnerable to homelessness.”

People experiencing homelessness has spiked in Clark County. In 2022, according to the Council for the Homeless, 9,032 people experienced homelessness, with two-thirds identifying as “newly homeless.” This is a jump from 2021, which found 6,285 people in Clark County experiencing homelessness.

High rent and a lack of affordable units were among the causes, according to the Council for the Homeless.

“There’s a lot of inflow, but not that much of outflow,” said Charlene Welch, communications director for the council. “We see it as a faucet, tub and drain. The faucet is on with lack of affordable housing and cost of rent … people fall into homelessness (the tub), but there’s nowhere for them to drain. There’s not that many exits from homelessness, because there’s just no affordable places for them to go.”

Despite working full time and earning about $1,600 a month, Adam Atchison called his 2004 Chevy Malibu home for more than a year. He couldn’t find affordable rent.

Atchison was living with his grandmother when the pandemic hit. Before vaccinations were an option, Atchison couch-surfed with friends. He was working and wanted to protect his grandmother in case he got sick. After he was vaccinated, he was still asked to move out.

Need help?

Need legal help? Call the CLEAR hotline for Northwest Justice Project at 1-888-201-1014. Or Clark County Volunteer Lawyers Program: 360-695-5313.

Need immediate housing or shelter assistance? Call the Council for the Homeless housing hotline at 360-695-9677.

Atchison ended up homeless because he couldn’t find a place to live without spending every dime he had.

“For my generation, I think we’re still dealing with the fallout from the economic crash,” Atchison, 28, said. “Even though I’m working full time, making rent is pretty much still unattainable; because even if you are working full time, there are still requirements with (making) three times the amount of rent (to qualify) for an apartment. I’d have to work at least two jobs to make that, and then I’m barely spending time at the home I’m trying to afford.”

He said application fees are also a huge barrier for people who are “barely able to support” themselves. Atchison now lives at the city of Vancouver’s second Safe Stay Community, Hope Village, in the Fourth Plain Village neighborhood. He’s working with caseworkers to find permanent housing.

“We are all trying to do what we’re supposed to do to move forward. But on top of trying to get housing, people have struggles with mental health, addiction. We are not lost causes. We are miles from where we were six months ago … but the system is just fundamentally broken,” he said.

Killing the American dream

High rent keeps residents from becoming homeowners and starting on the upward ladder of generational wealth that results from owning a home.

“High rent is trapping aspiring first-time homebuyers into the cycle of renting because they cannot put money aside to save toward becoming a homeowner. So it’s affecting renter households of all income brackets,” said Thomas, with the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance. “Renters are paying their landlord’s mortgage but are also not getting any housing stability out of it for the long run and you’re not building an asset that can be used to build generational wealth, or just to even build an opportunity to have something to leverage against in the future.”

The typical home in Clark County costs $555,000.

A recent Building Industry Association of Washington report said that a household needs to make $142,200 yearly to afford that $555,000 home. Eighty-one percent of Clark County households cannot afford a home.

There’s reason to worry, too, for those who can buy a home and pick among some of the most affordable options: condominium owners are subject to increases in homeowner dues and mobile or manufactured homeowners pay rent on the space where the home sits.

Sharon Pevey, 75, bought a manufactured home in a 55-plus neighborhood, thinking it was a cost-effective option. But now she pays $1,110 a month for the land her home sits on. Pevey had to return to work as a hairdresser and salon owner to afford the rent. In January, her rent will go up again.

“It just seems that if you’re a renter, you’re either going to wind up homeless, or you’re going to have to keep moving,” she said.

High rent not only impacts low-income residents, but also those who have historically been affected by wealth gaps.

“If you look at the statistics of who are renters, it’s disproportionately Black, Indigenous, people of color households,” said Thomas. “And that is largely because of the racial wealth gap.”

Nationally, workers of color are more likely than white workers to work in low-wage jobs. Even within the same occupations, white workers often earn more than workers of color. The homeownership rate for households of color in Washington is 19 percent lower than white households (49 percent and 68 percent, respectively).

“So everybody suffers when the housing market is so expensive. But BIPOC households are suffering the most,” said Thomas.

What goes up must come down?

The early afternoon heat blanketed Laughery as she strolled around her apartment building.

Priced out

Judy Laughery, 83, walks Sissy, her long-haired chihuahua, outside her apartment complex. After a $600 rent increase that she cannot afford, Laughery is uncertain about her future. She is paying $1,970 for her unit, not including utilities.Living on the edge: Clark County’s high rents leave many vulnerable renters on verge of homelessness
Judy Laughery opened her internet browser, and a poll popped up on her screen.
Sharon Pevey, owner of a manufactured home in Vancouver and member of the Association of Manufactured Home Owners, describes the predatory renting situation she finds herself in during a Southwest Washington Renter Perspective panel.Would rent control solve affordable housing crisis?
In her early 30s, Sharon Pevey of Vancouver paid $225 monthly for a three-bedroom, two-bath duplex with a couple of fireplaces and full basement. Because…

“It’s a hot one today,” she said, one hand holding onto her walker and the other wound around a leash for her service dog, Sissy, a white, long-haired Chihuahua.

Beside the expense, Laughery, who has chronic depression and congestive heart failure, hesitates to move because she feels at peace in the community.

“My entire life will change if I have to move, because I can’t afford this place anymore. I feel comfortable here, safe here. It’s been home for 11 years,” Laughery said.

Laughery has decided to renew her lease for another year despite the impact on her monthly budget.

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The 83-year-old recently got a call that an insurance payment from March didn’t go through. No worries, the insurance staff said, just pay $33 for the accidental missed payment and everything would be fixed.

“I had to tell them I couldn’t pay it for another week because I didn’t have any money leftover for this month and have to wait until my next Social Security payment,” Laughery said, and she began to cry. “I mean how humiliating; I couldn’t afford $33.”

She fears the future.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do when they increase my rent again next year? Someone just has to do something.”

Earlier this year in the Legislature, housing advocates attempted to bring more stability for renters with House Bills 1388 and 1389 — both meant to ensure reasonable and predictable rent increases. But neither passed.

Landlords and property management companies argued against rental increase caps, saying they would impact renters long term because landlords would leave the business, removing affordable housing supplies.

Despite no legislative action this session, Thomas said there is still hope for renters.

Eight thousand people showed support for the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance’s movement to provide more renter protections in state law. Laughery is thinking about joining forces with other neighbors to see what difference they can make together.

“I’ll probably be dead by the time we actually do see some change for renters,” said Laughery. “But I do have hope that things will get better because I fear what will happen if rent keeps going up.”

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, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.