WOODLAND — Phil Zorich pointed to dark-green kale leaves poking from a garden bed he built.
“I planted those in October, all we need is a little sunshine and they’ll grow like crazy,” he said. “And it offsets the cost of groceries.”
It’s just one way he and his wife, Robin, are trying to trim their spending. Rising rents and living costs are outpacing income growth, placing a heavy financial burden on the Zoriches and many other Clark County residents.
Michele Thomas, director of policy and advocacy for the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, said the strain often pressures renters to make tough trade-offs, such as dipping into savings or cutting medication.
“They are being forced to choose between really essential basic necessities of life to pay the rent,” Thomas said. “It is really costing — seniors in particular— way too much. It is causing them to make terrible choices that nobody should.”
The Zoriches, both 74, bought their manufactured home because they thought it would be an affordable option. But now, the Zoriches feel like they’re teetering on the edge of housing instability.
“You don’t do anything but survive, which is sad. You spend your whole life working to sit around and survive,” Phil Zorich said.
The Zoriches sat in their living room one January day and watched their border collie, McKenzie, play. The family moved into the mobile home unit in 2017. When they toured the unit, the rent for the lot on which the home sits was $435. They paid cash for the home and then found out their rent would be $610 — more than they budgeted, but doable.
The next year, rent increased to $750.
“OK, that’s fine,” Robin Zorich recalled thinking. “We can live on that. We have two incomes.”
But rent kept rising. Starting in March, the Zoriches — and others in their park — will pay $1,250, a $200 increase.
All but $100 of Robin Zorich’s monthly Social Security check goes toward their rent. Phil Zorich pays the other bills.
The two said they are unable to move. The high cost of their lot will deter potential buyers.
“It’s going to be impossible. You can’t move, and you can’t stay. They’ve got us over a barrel,” Phil Zorich said.
But it’s not just rent. The Zoriches said they are feeling pressured by other rising costs. For example, grocery prices have jumped by 25 percent over the past four years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Insurance goes up. Medicare costs go up,” Phil Zorich said. “You can’t even stay stabilized.”
The Zoriches said they will have to start weeding out nonessential expenses, such as subscriptions and even home maintenance.
Phil Zorich has been on kidney dialysis for almost 20 years. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, he wakes up at 4 a.m. to head to the dialysis clinic. Robin Zorich has her own health conditions. The Zoriches said despite having insurance, they still have copays to cover — and they add up.
Last year, the couple shelled out $4,386 for copayments. It would have been more if they hadn’t applied for financial help through their insurance company, Robin Zorich said.
“If one of us dies, I don’t know what the other will do,” Robin Zorich said. “We’ll have to live forever, or die at the same time.”
The debate over rent stabilization has been long and contentious in Washington.
In 1981, the Legislature passed the Rent Control Preemption Act, which banned local governments from enforcing rent control ordinances. Over the course of four decades, lawmakers, renters, advocates and landlords battled over the issue.
In 2023, housing advocates introduced two failed House bills to provide rent stability.
This legislative session, housing advocates and lawmakers resurrected the cause with two bills. Senate Bill 5961 already died. But House Bill 2114 moved out of the rules committee Wednesday to be scheduled for a floor vote. The bill would cap rent increases at 7 percent.
Some landlords argue if the bill passes, they will be the ones priced out of the market.
“It’s no secret that we are experiencing a housing crisis. We simply don’t have enough housing units,” Riley Benge of the Washington Realtors told legislators at a January hearing for HB 2114. “Although we are grateful for the hard work and progress made last session around creating more housing, we want to be careful not to do anything to harm those efforts.”
Benge said HB 2114 would impact housing production and could, in its wake, deepen Washington’s housing crisis. Benge and others have argued that rent caps could shift the housing market to more owner-occupied housing or short-term rentals, such as Airbnb.
A March 2023 Department of Commerce report projected that 1.1 million new homes need to be built by 2024 in Washington. That target will be harder to reach with rent stabilization in place, opponents argue, adding that even existing rental stock would deteriorate because landlords would have less revenue to cover maintenance and repairs.
Even if rent is capped, it will still be too high for them to pay, Robin Zorich said.
“How do you put your parents, grandparents out on the streets? One day they’re going to be our age and they might be in this position.”
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.