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News / Clark County News

Housing a top struggle for undocumented immigrants in Clark County

Lack of Social Security numbers shuts many doors

By Alexis Weisend, Columbian staff reporter
Published: April 27, 2024, 6:10am

Rent was going up again for the decaying Vancouver apartment where Isabel lived with her husband and two sons. And though it was difficult to pay, she knew her family would scrape together any amount of money to stay in their home.

Isabel and her husband are undocumented immigrants from Michoacán, Mexico. If they become homeless, where they’re likely to interact with police, they’re at higher risk of deportation and separation from their sons with citizenship — one of whom has an intellectual disability.

Many undocumented immigrants come to the United States for better opportunities but struggle to find housing, especially in Clark County, where rents are high. Undocumented immigrants don’t have Social Security numbers — the key for unlocking doors into affordable housing.

Without Social Security numbers, it’s harder to build credit and receive loans. Along with limited housing options, immigrants face hefty security deposits to rent and high interest rates to buy homes.

Get Help

Hispanic parents of children with disabilities can receive help by making an appointment with Pasitos Gigantes Southwest Washington by going to https://pasitosgigantes.org/contact.

Undocumented immigrants are ineligible for most federal rental assistance programs, according to a Congressional Research Report, including public housing, Housing Choice Vouchers, Section 8 project-based rental assistance and rural rental assistance.

And if undocumented immigrants fall on hard times, they’re not eligible for most social programs, such as food stamps, health care and supplemental security income, despite paying into them via taxes.

When Isabel struggled to pay the rent, she had little support. People who had visited the U.S. told Isabel how much better her life would be after she moved with her husband.

“But when I came here, and I see everything, I told my husband, ‘It’s not what the people say. It’s hard. It’s very hard for undocumented people like us,’” said Isabel, whom The Columbian is identifying only by her middle name because of her risk of deportation.

A fear of deportation

It’s difficult to tell how many undocumented immigrants live in Clark County. If U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement discovers that someone did not enter the country legally, they face deportation.

The fear of deportation hangs over the heads of undocumented immigrants always, said Gabriela Mendoza Ewing, executive director of Pasitos Gigantes Southwest Washington. The Vancouver-based organization serves more than 500 families with children with intellectual disabilities, about 98 percent of whom are undocumented, she said.

During the pandemic, she watched several members of those families be deported, she said.

“It’s usually the breadwinner, and then the spouse with the children is the one that stays back, and they don’t know what to do because the breadwinner is the one that was thrown out of the country,” she said. “They don’t know how to earn the money — how to take care of the children, pay rent, food, you name it.”

Low wages, inconsistent work and injuries — all issues that undocumented immigrants are more at risk of experiencing — can be detrimental to accessing and retaining housing.

It’s technically illegal to hire someone knowing they’re undocumented, according to federal law, but that doesn’t stop people from hiring undocumented immigrants who need work to survive in a new country.

Some employers take advantage of the fear of deportation by paying undocumented employees less than the minimum wage, putting them in dangerous working conditions or refusing to compensate them for workplace injuries, Mendoza Ewing said. (Most labor laws still apply to undocumented immigrants, but many either are fearful of reporting workplace issues or don’t know that they can, she said.)

Research, including a 2009 study published in the National Library of Medicine and a 2021 data analysis by The Center for Public Integrity, backs up these assertions.

Undocumented immigrants can work as independent contractors, but this can mean a lack of consistent income.

Immigration status is something that landlords can exploit as well, Isabel said.

When she moved out of her first Vancouver apartment, her landlord refused to return her security deposit, saying he needed the money to clean the unit. Isabel, who cleans for a living, said she scrubbed the entire apartment before her family left, but she was too afraid of deportation to go to court.

“I think they take advantage of undocumented people all the time,” Isabel said.

High prices

Isabel did not realize how important a Social Security number was to accessing housing in the United States.

When she became pregnant at 17, she came with her husband to the U.S. He said he could make more money here to support her and the baby.

But it wasn’t that easy. Finding an apartment that would accept them without credit history, references or a Social Security number felt impossible. For a while, she worked in fields in Yakima and sold tamales in the off-season because she couldn’t find work anywhere else.

“I had to find something to make money to support my children. It’s a very hard situation … because you can’t receive anything, any benefits, anything. But you can pay taxes all the time,” Isabel said.

Undocumented immigrants pay taxes through sales tax and file taxes using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number instead of a Social Security number. Paying taxes chronicles work history and “good moral character,” which may help undocumented immigrants in the future if the U.S. authorizes another amnesty program (a pardon for an undocumented person and a step toward a green card).

Eventually, Isabel’s husband found work as an electrician, and she as an occasional house cleaner, in Vancouver. Security deposits for apartments were nearly double the first month’s rent because of their lack of credit and Social Security numbers, Isabel said.

The only apartment that would accept them was one that came with mold, broken cabinets and regular rent increases.


Despite Isabel’s family’s initial financial trouble, they saved enough for a down payment on a house after almost 20 years in the United States. But there was another hurdle: With a limited credit history and no Social Security numbers, the interest rate and down payment were sky high for the couple.

In 2022, the average interest rate for a home was 5.53 percent. Her family’s interest rate is 8.9 percent. Their mortgage payments take up more than two-thirds of their income, Isabel said.

“We cannot save money since we got a house,” she said.

Mendoza Ewing said some of her clients have faced even higher interest rates, some of which are double the average interest rates at the time.

As of 2020, it’s against Washington law for creditors to discriminate against someone because of immigration status. However, blanket policies that apply to everyone, regardless of immigration status, aren’t illegal. That means lenders can require Social Security numbers or charge higher down payments and interest rates for people without Social Security numbers or with limited credit history.

For instance, Clark County’s Down Payment Assistance Program, which helps first-time homebuyers purchase homes with low interest rates, requires a Social Security number, according to its administrator, Dietrich Schmitz.

‘We need a house’

Maria, an undocumented immigrant from Los Mochis, Mexico, who lives in Vancouver, is wary of buying a home using a loan from a bank because of high interest rates for undocumented immigrants. (The Columbian is using her first name only because of her risk of deportation.)

“I have seen many people lose houses before,” she said of her undocumented friends.

She’s working with a private lender — a common practice in her community, she said. A man who owns several homes in Vancouver has agreed to sell her one if she puts down 40 percent of the home’s cost — about $200,000. In return, he promises he’ll charge her a low interest rate as she pays off the rest of the house to him, she said.

She’s been saving for years to get her family out of their small apartment of 12 years, where her two sons share a room. Maria hopes to own her home eventually because she will never receive Social Security retirement benefits, although she’s paid into them through her taxes for 22 years, she said.

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“We want more space. We want to secure a house for us, because we won’t work forever,” Maria said. “And we won’t be young forever, so we need a house over our heads.”

Isabel, Maria and Mendoza Ewing said they hope there will be easier pathways for undocumented immigrants to rent and buy homes in the future.

Isabel and Mendoza Ewing said undocumented immigrants face stereotypes, including that they won’t pay bills on time, have low-paying jobs or take advantage of social systems, despite being ineligible for most.

“They don’t believe in immigrant people, but some people (are) working hard, doing the best for their family, and they don’t see that,” Isabel said.

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.