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News / Clark County News

Housed, but hanging on by thread: Vancouver family struggles as they watch neighbors end up homeless

Rental rates push formerly homeless families back toward life on the streets

By Mia Ryder-Marks, Columbian staff reporter
Published: March 2, 2024, 6:14am
13 Photos
Monica Zazueta, 37, of Vancouver comforts her toddler, Rufio,1, after he took a tumble on the floor at their home Feb. 15. Zazueta and her family, who experienced homelessness a few years ago, are now housed and paying rent of almost $1,900 a month. She fears the family will become homeless again. &ldquo;We&rsquo;re surviving through love,&rdquo; she said. &ldquo;Our kiddos don&rsquo;t deserve this kind of life.
Monica Zazueta, 37, of Vancouver comforts her toddler, Rufio,1, after he took a tumble on the floor at their home Feb. 15. Zazueta and her family, who experienced homelessness a few years ago, are now housed and paying rent of almost $1,900 a month. She fears the family will become homeless again. “We’re surviving through love,” she said. “Our kiddos don’t deserve this kind of life. We don’t deserve this kind of life.” (Photos by Amanda Cowan/ The Columbian) Photo Gallery

A tan duplex in a quiet Vancouver cul-de-sac tells the harrowing story of the city’s housing affordability crisis.

On the right side of the duplex lives a formerly homeless family of four stretching to pay $1,895 in rent each month. The left side sits empty after February’s eviction of a family of six now out on the streets.

Finding a place to live doesn’t end the struggle for many coming out of homelessness. In January, 17 people returned to homelessness from housing, according to Council for the Homeless data. State advocates predict numbers will grow across the state after lawmakers killed a rent stabilization bill this week.

“Homelessness is right around the corner for us,” said Monica Zazueta, whose family is clinging to their unit in the duplex.

Cycles of homelessness

Zazueta, 37, moved to Vancouver in 2005. Rent on her first apartment was about $450. The next place she moved into was $750 — more money, she said, but it was a duplex, so she figured that was normal.

When Zazueta and Ryan Tabor, her fiance, first fell in love, the two struggled with addiction and began cycling in and out of shelters.

They eventually found a duplex that was willing to rent to them. Rent was $1,075. But when landlords renovated the building, the couple had to leave.

They became homeless once again. Zazueta now had a baby and didn’t want to go back to couch surfing at friends’ and family members’ homes. The couple jumped at the chance to rent a tiny home in Fruit Valley for $650. They needed a spot to charge their electric car, which created a conflict with case workers and property managers. Zazueta and her family ended up leaving the tiny-home complex.

For 27 days, the family had no place to live.

Then, Zazueta and her family found the duplex where they’ve been living since 2022. Rent is $1,895. Zazueta is a paid member of several agency boards. Tabor, 38, picks up handyman jobs. Their 9-year-old child receives Social Security Disability Insurance. The family also receives food benefits and utility assistance. All told, it’s barely enough to cover the rent.

“It’s like we’re not even human beings. We’re just dollar signs, and it’s always about the economy but not about our mental health, our kids’ mental health,” Zazueta said.

In December, the couple fell behind on rent and received a notice to vacate in 30 days. Zazueta said a friend set up a GoFundMe account for her and her family, which garnered enough donations for them to “barely escape” eviction.

“They say if you can’t afford it, you can find somewhere else to live,” she said. “Where? Where can I go in (Vancouver)? I don’t want to move somewhere else; I’ve worked and lived here since 2005. I have a community, friends here.”

Housing doesn’t end cycles of homelessness. A study by the National Alliance to End Homelessness found Americans are returning to homelessness after being housed at far greater rates than before the pandemic.

Communities where people spend more than 32 percent of their income on rent can expect a more rapid increase in homelessness, according to a Zillow-sponsored study. In Clark County, 25 percent of Vancouver renters pay more than half their income on rent, according to a recent Harvard University study.

A U.S. Census Pulse Survey reveals that close to half a million Washington residents experienced pressure to move between May and October 2023 because of rising rents — with nearly 60 percent displaced due to these increases.

Sunny Wonder, deputy director of Council for the Homeless, said there aren’t enough resources to meet the need in our community.

“We’ve all gone through personal crises, and it hasn’t ended in homelessness, while other people are not able to sustain in the midst of that crisis,” Wonder said.

Day by day

The left side of the duplex was home to a husband, wife and four children who were evicted in early February.

Aware of their plight, Zazueta bought her neighbors pizza as they prepared to move.

The family of six and their dog lived in their car for a few days. The children had to get ready for school in gas station restrooms. The parents applied for housing assistance but are waiting for a call back.

“We’re just living day by day,” said the mother, who declined to be named in this story to protect her children’s identities.

She said paying for everyday necessities, such as formula for her newborn, is about the same price as getting a motel room for the night.

“We’re just trying to get money to not be in the car and keep a roof over our kids’ heads,” she said.

‘Surviving through love’

In late January, Zazueta and her eldest child traveled to Olympia with other housing advocates to testify in support of rent stabilization.

On Monday, that legislation — House Bill 2114 — died. It would have capped rent increases at 7 percent. Opponents argued it would have led to a decline in available rental units.

“It’s just a spit in the face, a punch to the stomach. What more can we give you?” Zazueta said. “They only care about their families, but what about my family? It makes us feel like we don’t matter.”

She said her family’s mental health has suffered from the stress of trying to hang on to their home. To keep her spirits up, Zazueta fills her home with inspirational signs. One declares, “Choose to be great!”

More than anything, she wants her children to have a better future.

“We’re surviving through love,” she said. “Our kiddos don’t deserve this kind of life. We don’t deserve this kind of life.”

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.

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