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News / Clark County News

Widow: ‘I lost my partner, my best friend and then my home all at the same time’

Clark County woman forced to confront rising rents amid grief

By Mia Ryder-Marks, Columbian staff reporter
Published: March 23, 2024, 6:14am
5 Photos
Kathy Driver holds her 11-year-old Shih Tzu Cooper. Driver&rsquo;s spouse died in 2022, and she could no longer stay in the home they shared.
Kathy Driver holds her 11-year-old Shih Tzu Cooper. Driver’s spouse died in 2022, and she could no longer stay in the home they shared. (Photos by Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

With a small smile, Kathy Driver gently placed a framed photograph on the kitchen counter in her RV home.

The snapshot shows Driver and Dale Manheimer on vacation in Hawaii, one of the couple’s favorite memories.

Driver and Manheimer’s love stayed strong for almost 40 years. Manheimer’s death in 2022 left Driver confronting not just grief, but also tough decisions about how to make ends meet on one income. Driver was forced to move from her home of almost 15 years.

Her fate is shared by others who lose their spouses amid rising costs of living. As The Columbian delves deeper into the human stories behind Clark County’s affordable housing crisis, many residents ask the same question: What will I do when my partner dies?

“I lost my partner, my best friend and then my home all at the same time,” said Driver, 71.

Loss of love, livelihood

Driver was among 1.2 million adults nationwide who lost a life partner in 2022, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. Of those who lost their partners, 42 percent said they enrolled in some sort of income assistance program.

Losing a partner creates more financial adversity for women than men, research shows. According to a 2014 study by Boston College, women experienced more financial hardships and difficulty funding basic needs after the loss of a partner.

The study also found twice as many widows as widowers report experiencing significant negative financial repercussions in the first year after the death of their partners.

Driver’s experience bears out that research.

She was at Manheimer’s side when she died at 79 on Dec. 12, 2022.

The couple met in Florida and had been best friends for more than 35 years. They fell in love and eventually moved to Washington.

Driver worked at the Vancouver Clinic for 18 years. Manheimer administered surveys at the mall.

In 2013, Manheimer was diagnosed with inflammatory myositis, an autoimmune disorder that impacts muscles and tendons from head to toe. In March 2022, Manheimer suffered her first stroke.

“From there it went downhill,” Driver said.

From March to December, Manheimer was in and out of a rehabilitation center. She was at home in December when her condition was at its worst, Driver said. Manheimer had lost control of bodily functions, and her blood pressure and oxygen level were low.

After Manheimer’s death, Driver didn’t leave her manufactured home for two months, keeping the blinds closed. She didn’t even answer her phone. While Driver grieved, the realization hit that she wouldn’t be able to afford to stay in the home she had shared with Manheimer on her Social Security check of about $1,200 a month.

Driver’s father purchased the manufactured home in a Hazel Dell park in 2005. When he died in 2008, Driver inherited it. Despite owning the home, Driver — like most manufactured home residents — pays rent on the land underneath it.

When she moved into the mobile home park her rent was $325. In December 2022, Driver paid around $950 for rent but a rent hike of $50 was about to go into effect.

“Reality slammed into me in the face and I realized: I can’t stay in this home,” she said.

In February, she made the decision to sell the home she had shared with Manheimer for almost 15 years.

“It was a really tough decision for me to leave this park,” Driver said. “I thought this was my forever home. Both of us wanted it to be our forever home.”

She bargained with the property management company, which agreed her rent wouldn’t increase while her house was on the market but she would eventually pay back the difference. In the end, she was never billed for the increased rent payments, Driver said, for which she is grateful.

But in moving out, Driver lost her community. She had many friends at the Hazel Dell manufactured home park.

High housing costs left Driver with few options. She doesn’t have a monthly income three times the amount of rent, as needed to secure an apartment. So Driver purchased a 34-foot RV to live in and parked it at her nephew’s house. She has lived there for about a year and pays $400, which includes utilities.

On the web

AARP offers information about financial moves a person should make after their spouse or partner dies. Call the AARP’s free hotline at 1-888-980-9483 to talk with a specialist.

Visit AARP online for other tips.

Despite the low rent, Driver said she’s using up her savings.

“I didn’t have time to do the grieving. I haven’t had a good cry in a year,” Driver said.

The cost of loss

Rachael Myers, executive director for the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, said that she’s not surprised by Driver’s story.

“We have heard from tons of renters in Clark County who have had to leave where they’re living because they can’t afford rent increases. So to imagine somebody suddenly losing maybe half of their income when someone passes away — that’s devastating,” Myers said.

In Clark County, rent averages $1,600 for a one-bedroom unit. A report published this month by the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance and the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that the gap between affordable housing and renters is growing.

did you know?

1.2 million adults nationwide lost a life partner in 2022, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

There are 26 affordable units for every 100 residents, according to the report.

“The gap in between what we need, and what’s available and accessible to people is enormous and it’s just growing,” Myers said.

Hope, solutions

The RV that Driver has called home for about a year displays elements of her personality: Seahawks memorabilia, family photographs and toys for Cooper, her rescued Shih Tzu. The dog loves to run around inside the RV and jump on a built-in table. But despite the homey elements, Driver knows the RV can’t be her home forever.

“This isn’t a long-term solution,” she said. “But you do what you have to do until you can’t.”

Driver said walking up the steps to get into or leave her RV has been getting increasingly difficult for both her and Cooper, who will turn 12 this year.

She toured homes at affordable units a couple of weeks ago. Her application was accepted for one apartment building but she is still awaiting news on her Section 8 housing voucher from the Vancouver Housing Authority.

“It’s a difficult process — the grieving first and then reality strikes and you have to make these tough decisions. That’s the hardest part,” Driver said. “But I have hope that very soon it will change.”

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.