Ashleymae Castle thought it would be easier to find an apartment in Cowlitz County than in northern Clark County, where she lived with her family. But the 27-year-old searched for 10 months without luck. Often, the only apartments she found in her price range were seedy, with moldy walls, sinking floors and dangling cabinet doors.
Despite a spotless rental history, steady income, university education and clean background, Castle could not find a quality, affordable rental. She finally asked her boyfriend to move in with her. They found a house on Columbia Street in Kelso for about $1,100 a month, but it is still difficult for the two working adults.
“There are some months that we have a hard time keeping the fridge filled with food or gas in the cars, but we make it work,” Castle said. “We keep our bills paid and on time. We’re just struggling.”
Like Castle, hundreds of other local families are struggling to find housing. Rising rents, stagnant incomes and a shortage of low-cost housing have combined to create a “crisis” that is contributing to the rise in homelessness in the area, according to developers, rental property managers and others.
“We are in the middle of an affordable housing crisis. And I don’t like the word crisis ... but regardless of how we’ve gotten here, we have a terrible need for places for people to live,” said Ray Pyle, owner of Catlin Properties, which manages rental properties.
“There’s an affordable housing crisis everywhere and a lot of that comes from decades of shrinking federal budgets related to affordable housing, and economic conditions related to the Great Recession,” said Melissa Taylor, program development director with Lower Columbia CAP.
Over the last three years, average apartment rent prices have soared 24 percent in Cowlitz County, according to the Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies at the University of Washington. The average apartment now costs $820 per month – up from $661 in 2014, the center found.
The rental vacancy rate last fall was 1.4 percent, well short of the 5 percent to 6 percent level considered healthy. By comparison, the vacancy rates were 4.1 percent in King County and 3.2 percent in Clark County, where housing costs and availability are notoriously troublesome.
Waits for low-income housing are daunting: About 400 people are on the waiting list for the 38-unit Lilac Place apartment development in Woodland, owned by the Longview Housing Authority.
As Taylor suggests, part of the problem is due to an echo of the 2008 recession. Developers couldn’t build much new housing, leading to a shortage now that the economy has rebounded and a surge of people are moving into Cowlitz County to escape even higher urban housing prices. And while the economy has improved here, too, wage growth has been flat and unable to keep up with rising rental rates.
About 55 percent of Cowlitz County residents now pay more than a third of their monthly income on housing and are classified as “income distressed,” according to the U.S. Census. And about a quarter of county residents fork over more than half of their monthly income for housing, well above levels considered financially abvisable.
“We (the collective real estate industry locally) are literally making good people homeless. That should not be in our mission,” Pyle said.
A difficult search
Last September, Maxx Wolff and his 17-year old son pitched a tent on a friend’s Kalama property and went “camping” for a month. Wolff and his wife, Tina Hayden, hadn’t been able to find an affordable home for themselves, their two teenage children and four dogs. Hayden and her daughter stayed with friends.
“It was devastating,” said Hayden, 40, of Longview. “I’ve never not been able to care for my family. My husband and I have worked 18 years to make sure that our family is always provided for, that they always have a home.”
The family had been renting an 860-square-foot house for about $970 a month, but they had to leave Aug. 31 after their landlord died. They immediately starting searching for a new place, but they quickly discovered their monthly income didn’t meet the threshold set by most landlords — three times the monthly rent.
Hayden is a caregiver with a typical monthly income of about $1,600. Wolff suffers from a medical condition. He can’t work and has been unable to secure disability benefits. They receive $240 in food stamps.
“Every rental agency we called said we don’t meet the income requirement … regardless of the fact that I can show that I can pay that amount,” Hayden said.
Over the last year, Ray Pyle can recall several moments when tenants broke down crying in his office out of frustration, anger or sadness about not finding a place to live.
“When a grown, adult person stands at your counter and breaks into tears because they feel homeless — it’s a terrible feeling,” Pyle said. “It’s not one that I can solve immediately... but we worked super hard this year to try to find places for people to live. And it was not easy.”
As owner of Catlin Properties, Pyle manages 800 leases throughout Cowlitz County with a vacancy rate of about 0.5 percent for most of the year. At times last year, it had no available rentals in the entire county.
“In your youthful entrepreneurship it might seem like a dream, I rented all my stuff,” Pyle said in a December interview. “The analogy that I’ve used all year is: it’s like having a new car dealership and no cars to sell. Yeah you can service them, you can do all of the things that you would normally do, but you have no cars to sell. It makes it pretty weird.”
At Sharp Property Management, vacancy rates hovered at 1 to 2 percent in 2017 among its 1,000 rentals, said Mitchell Norton, COO of Sharp Property.
In 2015, a typical one-bedroom apartment Sharp Property managed would cost about $495 a month, Norton said. Now it’s about $700 to $750 a month, a 40 percent jump. Studio apartments once renting for $425 per month now go for $595, he said.
Property managers say the rental market frenzy started about two years ago. Norton said more residents from Clark County and the Portland area are moving into the Longview-Kelso area. Norton estimates that about 30 percent of his tenants live in Cowlitz County but work just south or north of the county borders.
Donna Britten, CEO of New Spring Property Management, has seen the same trend.
“We’re picking up a lot of people that are from the Vancouver area because it’s cheaper here and the drive to Vancouver is so easy. … They’re going to get $400 to $600 off their rent a month to drive 40 minutes,” Britten said.
Cowlitz County’s population isn’t exploding like Portland’s or Seattle’s, but it has seen a steady up-tick in people moving into the area. An estimated 828 more people moved into Cowlitz County last year than moved out, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s the highest number since 2006, when net-in migration was 1,170, said Scott Bailey, regional economist with the state Employment Security Department.
Population growth, though has not been accompanied by wage growth. That makes it more difficult for would-be renters to meet a standard requirement that their monthly income be three times the cost of leasing a space. (So for example, a single person renting out a $700 one-bedroom apartment would need to make $2,100 monthly.) That’s an impossible feat for many low-income people, many of whom haven’t seen their paychecks grow substantially in years or are living on a fixed income.
While apartment rents shot up by 28 percent from fall 2015 to fall 2016, median household income rose just 0.2 percent from in the same year, according to the state Employment Security Department. That means a household with the median annual income of $50,637 saw their earnings rise by just about $100 over the year.
In November, The Wolff-Hayden family income dropped temporarily to $950 monthly because Hayden, a caregiver, lost a client and work hours. She also missed work to have arm surgery.
“We were just running into a wall. It’s winter. People aren’t moving,” and there weren’t many listings posted, she said. So Hayden, Wolff, their son and three other dogs moved into their 24-foot motorhome and parked on her sister’s property in Toutle, where they remain. Hayden’s daughter and one of the dogs are staying with friends.
The motorhome is cramped. There’s a small pullout sofa bed and another cab bedo. To go to the bathroom, they have to put on a coat and shoes and walk to her sister’s house.
“We have children who are in their 20s that were able to come home to mom and dad when they needed it,” Hayden said. And now that doesn’t exist, she said.
Even if the family finds an apartment that is affordable, they could be set back by the upfront costs.
Security deposits, application fees and pet deposits can easily add up to $2,000 on a one-bedroom apartment or $3,000 to $4,000 on a three-bedroom house, property managers say. For tenants struggling with $200 and $300 rent increases, that’s a hefty chunk of change.
“Many of these people unfortunately, they don’t have the money to move. So they’re going to accept these rent increases,” Pyle said.
There are subsidized housing options in the area, but the supply is limited and the waiting lists are long.
Melissa Taylor, a CAP official, said there are more people who qualify for subsidized housing than places for them to rent.
“For 100 households that are at the very bottom of the income bracket in Cowlitz County, there’s 27 housing units available to them,” Taylor said. So only about one out of four families that qualify for subsidized housing can actually find a place.
Longview Housing Authority Executive Director Chris Pegg said there are about 120 families that have been approved for subsidized housing that are struggling to find a place. Housing vouchers are good for 60 days, but Pegg says that has not been enough time in the current market.
“We’ve been routinely issuing vouchers for 120 days because no one is finding housing in 60 days,” she said. “And we still have almost 120 vouchers on the street.”
A little more than a year after Castle and her boyfriend moved into their Kelso home, their landlord now wants to sell their house. They have 10 months to find another place.
“Honestly I’m really scared,” Castle said. “Trying to find something in our price range, even looking right now to get a head start on it, it looks pretty much impossible.”
The housing market conditions have made it difficult for millennials to establish themselves as adults, she said.
“Eventually we would like to buy a house, but if we’re paying out what we’re making every month to rent and utilities, there’s no room for us to put any money aside to save up for down payments,” Castle said. “If we want to get married, it’s not something we can do. If we want to add a child to our family, there’s no way we could afford it at this point because all our money is going to rent and utilities and everything that goes along with that. So we’re kind of stuck.”