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News / Clark County News

Down payment on home out of reach as Clark County’s high rents challenge middle-income family

Family that 'makes good money' lives in RV for a year while looking for affordable housing

By Alexis Weisend, Columbian staff reporter
Published: May 10, 2024, 6:04am
6 Photos
Dylan Bowling, 8, from left, joins father, Chris Bowling, 39, sister, Emma, 13, brother, Wyatt, 10 months, and mother, Crystal Bowling, 38, as they take a break with their recreational vehicle in Ridgefield before dropping it off at the dealership. The family of five moved from a home in California to Clark County for the husband to accept a new job but had trouble finding housing they could afford.
Dylan Bowling, 8, from left, joins father, Chris Bowling, 39, sister, Emma, 13, brother, Wyatt, 10 months, and mother, Crystal Bowling, 38, as they take a break with their recreational vehicle in Ridgefield before dropping it off at the dealership. The family of five moved from a home in California to Clark County for the husband to accept a new job but had trouble finding housing they could afford. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

After renting a $6,000-a-month house in San Diego, Crystal Bowling never expected to have trouble finding housing in Clark County — especially after her husband secured a higher-paying job.

She knew moving costs and the birth of her baby would likely change her family’s financial situation. But she never thought they’d be crammed into a recreational vehicle with three children — a 13-year-old girl, 8-year-old boy and 10-month-old boy — in Ridgefield.

Desperate for more space, the family spent nearly $3,000 in fees applying to homes and apartments. Saving and qualifying for a down payment fell further out of reach.

“We were almost homeless — that’s the sad thing — and he makes good money,” Bowling, 38, said, referring to her husband’s job in construction.

Much attention has focused on how Washington’s housing crisis has affected low-income families, but it also hurts middle-class families like the Bowlings.

Middle-class families find themselves in a pinch, said Mike Wilkerson, who teaches a real estate class at Portland State University and is the director of analytics at ECOnorthwest, a Portland-based economic consulting firm.

“Those households aren’t able to save for down payments, particularly, let’s say, over the last several decades,” Wilkerson said. “The price of homes has increased, so the amount you need to save for a down payment just becomes larger and larger.”

That’s difficult to do in an era of high rents and inflation. About a quarter of families making between 80 and 100 percent of area median income (about $97,500 to $122,000 for a family of five in Clark County) are cost burdened by their rent, according to a 2022 National Low Income Housing Coalition report.

This is especially the case for families with children.

Bowling said she feels like Clark County’s housing costs aren’t the only factor keeping her family from stability — the price of groceries, school supplies and clothes has also gone up in recent years.

“It’s not about not having enough money. It’s about constantly spending,” she said.

Washington ranks third in the nation for yearly child expenses, according to a 2023 report by LendingTree, an online lending marketplace. The researchers estimate raising a child in Washington costs about $28,000 a year.

After purchasing their RV for $50,000 and living in it for a year, the Bowling family recently moved into a $1,860-a-month two-bedroom apartment in Ridgefield, the only apartment that would accept them after their credit score fell to 580, Bowling said. She and her husband missed three credit card payments after having their baby, and applying for dozens of homes in a short period of time also hurt their credit rating. The score hasn’t risen since they paid off the debt, she said.

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Landlords can charge a higher security deposit if a household does not meet their preferred credit score, which is usually above 670, according to the credit-scoring company FICO.

“I know why people are homeless. There are just too many obstacles. There’s a point where you just want to give up,” Bowling said. Tears fell down her cheeks while she bounced her baby.

Bowling and her husband would like to purchase a home and settle down in Clark County, returning to stability, but they cannot foresee saving enough money for a down payment.

Like the wider Portland-metro area’s housing market, Clark County’s is competitive. The median sale price for homes in April was $522,000 — $17,000 higher than this time last year.

“Homes over a million dollars aren’t nearly as competitive in terms of the total demand versus homes in that $400,000 to $600,000 range, which is more like first-time homebuyer type of price points today,” Wilkerson said.

On average, homes between $400,000 and $600,000 have accounted for about half of all Clark County’s residential sales each month in 2024, according to Regional Multiple Listing Service reports.

In the past, people could get by with down payments of 5 percent of the house’s cost. But in this competitive market, it often takes 20 percent, Wilkerson said.

“Over the last several decades, that wasn’t necessarily the case,” he said.

Clark County’s Down Payment Assistance Loan Program, created in 2022, helped first-time homebuyers with down payment assistance, but the funds quickly ran out. The Bowling family would make too much money to qualify anyway.

“The system doesn’t work for us,” Bowling said. “If you’re going through financial hardship, there shouldn’t have to be so many hoops to go through for peace.”

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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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