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News / Business / Clark County Business

Fees, deposits barriers for renters in Clark County

Those already struggling to pay rent find when moving that required upfront costs can be impediments to securing housing

By Alexis Weisend, Columbian staff reporter
Published: March 4, 2024, 6:05am
2 Photos
Xavier Lopez of Miracle Man Movers transports a piece of furniture from a container to his truck while moving a customer to Vancouver in March 2023. Application and other fees can make moving costly for renters.
Xavier Lopez of Miracle Man Movers transports a piece of furniture from a container to his truck while moving a customer to Vancouver in March 2023. Application and other fees can make moving costly for renters. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

Sara Oberrecht has a quiet apartment in Battle Ground and a full-time job at Legacy Health working from home. But all that could be gone by Tuesday.

That’s the day she, her fiancé, her two cats and her dog have to be out of the apartment they can no longer afford, according to the pay-or-vacate notice that showed up on their door.

She could barely afford to move into her current apartment, with all the fees and deposits it required. With dwindling savings, she’s not sure she can afford another move.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” she said, fighting back tears. “I’m trying to prevent (us) from being evicted and being homeless. I want to stay in Clark County, but they’re not making it easy.”

Costs of Moving

Possible costs of moving include:

  • Application fee: $35 to $75
  • Administration fee: $50 to $350
  • Holding deposit: $100 to $500
  • Movers: $182 per hour
  • Security deposit: $1,500 on average
  • Pet deposit: $200 to $500
  • Hookup fees: Starting at $50 for water, gas and electrical lines and between $650 and $850 for washer and dryer hook up
  • Utility deposit: $250 to $300 in Washington
  • Last month’s rent: $1,550 to $1,817 in Clark County

Sources: Tenants Union of Washington State; Redfin; Movebuddha.com; Washington House Committee on Housing, Human Services and Veterans; Zillow; Forbes; Electricrate; Energysage.com and Rent.com

How to Get Help

Council for the Homeless can help people needing moving assistance. People who need housing and shelter assistance should call Council for the Homeless’ Housing Hotline at 360-695-9677, which operates from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays and 11 a.mn. to 5 p.m. on weekends and holidays.

Moving in Clark County can cost thousands of dollars in fees and deposits. Landlords say those costs are necessary for screening applicants and insurance for possible damage. Low-income renters are caught in a Catch-22: They either can’t afford to move out and are stuck paying high rents, or they need to move constantly to outrun rent increases.

Sunny Wonder, deputy director of the nonprofit group Council for the Homeless, has seen the number of fees and their costs increase since the pandemic began. She attributes it to a high demand in a waning affordable housing market.

“I have seen moving costs go from somewhere around maybe under $2,000 … to well over $3,000,” she said.

Some states and cities have placed caps on application fees, but Clark County landlords say that’s not the answer to making moving more affordable.

Cost to landlords

Many people looking for a new home to rent in Clark County need to pay an application fee, an administration fee and a holding fee (money tenants pay to landlords to hold a unit until the tenants can move in). To even be considered, many property management companies require applicants to have monthly incomes three times the rent.

Then, if they’re approved, renters may need to pay thousands more dollars for movers, a security deposit, a pet deposit, hookup fees, renters insurance and more.

Landlords cannot charge more for application fees, which range from about $30 to $75, than it costs to screen a prospective renter, according to Washington law.

“There’s a lot of work that goes into an applicant applying for your individual unit,” said Sue Denfeld, landlord and president of the Clark County Rental Association.

That can include making calls to previous landlords and jobs, filling out paperwork, showing the unit to applicants and screening their applications.

Denfeld said smaller landlords like her will often ask prospective renters before they pay an application fee whether they have any history their systems might flag so they don’t waste money.

“It’s not making me any money,” Denfeld said. “It takes their money, and it takes my time.”

Denfeld said larger property management companies are more likely to charge administration fees, which can be hundreds of dollars, than the mom-and-pop landlords she represents.

Denny Miller, co-owner of the Clark County property management company Zenith Properties, said administration fees go toward labor costs, because there is time and effort associated with the onboarding process.

“When you get professional housing providers, there’s a cost associated with that,” he said.

Stay or move?

Application costs can quickly add up when applying for multiple apartments, especially if someone has an eviction on their record, criminal history or bad credit that could cause frequent denial.

Oberrecht, 47, said she struggled to get into her apartment in Battle Ground after her identity was stolen and her credit was ruined. She and her fiancé spent $1,300 on application and administrative fees to apartments.

“It’s an extremely stressful situation when you’re trying to find a home, and you don’t want to live on the street,” she said. “I’m forking over so much money, and I can only apply for an (apartment) that I think maybe will be able to give me a place.”

She remembers paying a $300 nonrefundable administration fee, just to watch a computer system flag her credit immediately and dismiss her as an applicant.

“It literally took them 30 seconds to tell me ‘no,’ ” she said.

After her current apartment accepted her, her fiancé lost his job, and they fell behind on rent. Now, they may have to move and start the process all over again. And even though she struggles to afford staying, she also can’t afford to move.

If she can’t find an apartment by Tuesday, she will live in her car. She doesn’t know what will happen to her job, because she usually works from home.

“I don’t know what to do at this point,” she said.

To cap, or not to cap?

Landlords are not required to refund application and administration fees, unlike security deposits. But with high demand for affordable housing in Clark County, a dozen people can apply for the same unit, each spending money on fees, while only one household secures the spot.

That’s the issue Amy Ruger and her boyfriend ran into when they were forced to move rental units due to mold. It took more than a year to find an affordable place where Ruger could help her boyfriend with home dialysis treatment. By that time, she had spent hundreds of dollars she hadn’t budgeted for just on fees.

“Being on a limited income — I’m just a caregiver and he’s on disability — it was extremely difficult,” she said. “It should not have taken over a year for us to find a place and that much money.”

Ruger advises anybody planning on moving to factor in lots of fees to their budgets.

“I feel like when it comes to rental housing, there are certain policies maybe that need to be in place so that at least everyone’s on a level playing field or knows what to expect,” she said.

The Biden administration announced in July that it would crack down on junk fees, highlighting state and local laws that cap or eliminate rental application fees.

In Seattle, a security deposit and fees combined cannot exceed one month’s rent. Colorado allows prospective renters to reuse a rental application for up to 30 days without paying additional fees. Montana requires landlords to refund application fees to unsuccessful applicants, minus any costs related to reviewing the application.

Eugene, Ore., tried to cap rental application fees at $10, but a judge found that limit conflicts with state law because a landlord could end up paying more than that for a screening.

Miller of Zenith Properties said that’s the reason why caps on application fees aren’t a good idea.

“When you run into a situation where there’s a restriction … these costs would have to get pushed to the owner,” he said. “I think it’s a necessity as an industry to be able to cover the costs for doing what they do.”

Some landlords recommend people looking for rentals in Clark County use reusable tenant screening reports, such as myscreeningreport.com, although landlords aren’t required to accept these.

Stuck in homelessness

Fees aren’t the only impediment to moving. Rising rents come with other rising costs. Landlords sometimes require the first and last months’ rent up front, which are obviously higher as rents rise.

However, increasing security deposits have been one of the largest hurdles for people with low incomes to secure housing, said Wonder of Council for the Homeless. Usually, security deposits are one to two months’ rent, according to listing sites.

That kind of money can be difficult to save, especially if someone has moved out of another rental due to high rents. Plus, if someone is considered more of a risk financially, such as if a person has been evicted or is unemployed, they may have to pay more, Wonder said.

“They will sometimes see an increased security deposit, which you can imagine absolutely is impactful for folks if they couldn’t afford their housing before,” Wonder said.

In 2022, Washington began allowing landlords to offer monthly fees in lieu of a security deposit. But it’s up to the landlord whether they want to offer that option. The law doesn’t require the fee to be refundable. Wonder said she’s never heard of a landlord using that option.

Even if someone has saved up enough for a security deposit, which is around $1,500 in Washington, an applicant usually has to make three times the rent to be considered.

For reference, if someone secures a one-bedroom apartment on the cheaper side — let’s say it’s at 80 percent of fair market rent — they might pay about $1,200 a month. To make three times the rent, the tenant would have to make $22.50 an hour to qualify for that apartment. Minimum wage in Washington is $16.28 per hour.

Wonder frequently encounters people who have full-time jobs but are homeless because they don’t make three times the rent or they can’t afford the number of fees it would take to find an apartment.

“There are so many people who want housing, but there are so many people who can’t have housing,” Wonder said.

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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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