Local Rental Issues

Jeanne McIntosh, who is thankful to have found this Umapine rental after a long search, sits on her front steps, Thursday, July 29, 2021.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted just how important safe, affordable homes are for personal and community health. Safe affordable homes sustain families’ financial, physical and mental health; and in the case of the pandemic, it enables a family to shelter in place, stay healthy and prevent the spread of the virus. With secure homes, families are healthier, kids do better in school and neighborhoods and communities are stronger.

Yet, in our community, housing costs are rising much faster than wages, which means homeownership is increasingly out of reach for working families.

From 2009 to 2020 in Walla Walla County, the median home price increased 78% (from $176,400 to $305,500) while the average wage increased only 29% (from $35,590 to $45,864). According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, a home is affordable when housing costs do not exceed 30% of pre-tax income. For a family to afford a $250,000 home, they would need to earn $60,160 per year. In 2016, 66% of the homes in Walla Walla County that sold were less than $250,000; in the first part of 2021, only 11% of the homes that sold were less than $250,000.

Because homes are so expensive to buy, most low- and moderate-income workers in our region must now rent their homes. Yet our region does not have enough rentals available, and rents are high.

This past spring, the vacancy rate in Walla Walla County for 1-bedroom apartments was 0%. The vacancy rate for all rentals in the county was 1%, compared to 5% statewide. This is not just a current problem: Our county has not had a stable rental market for a number of years. According to the Washington State Department of Commerce, a market with a 5% rental vacancy rate is considered stable because it “indicates a balance between housing supply and demand.” As a result of the lack of homeownership and rental opportunities, many working families in our region are struggling to find safe, affordable rental homes to live in.

We spoke with five people in our region who have jobs with steady incomes, but have struggled to find and keep decent affordable rental homes. Their stories show that finding decent, affordable homes in our region can be very difficult and stressful. These searches can be long-lasting and have enduring impacts. For the renters we spoke to, our region’s lack of stable affordable rental homes translates into long commutes, safety issues for them and their children, overcrowding, anxiety and instability.

Starting anew in Walla Walla

Casey moved to Walla Walla from Colorado when she was laid off because of the pandemic. Fortunately, Casey’s aunt offered to share her apartment for six months while Casey looked for a job and her own rental home. Casey was offered a permanent job at the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial VA Medical Center in Walla Walla, but it took her a half a year to find a decent apartment that she could afford. There were very few available rentals, especially ones that accepted pets.

Some rental agencies and property management companies charged fees of $20-$30 to view a potential rental, and many did not return the fee if she did not apply for the unit or if she was not offered the rental.

One landlord offered Casey an apartment for what seemed like a good price — $900 per month — until she visited it. The apartment had bugs in the sink, sloping floors and burned out light bulbs down the hallway. It was in a good location, but she asked herself: “If the landlord is showing this place in this condition, when he is trying to get it rented, I wonder if he would ever come to repair anything if I called him?” Luckily, a week later Casey finally found an available apartment she could afford at $1200 per month.

Looking back at past rental troubles

Hannah does not have to worry about her housing now, but a few years ago her situation was much worse. She had to sell her home in 2019 because she could not afford to keep it after her divorce. With a teenager at home and two small dogs, finding an apartment was a “huge struggle.” Finally Hannah found an apartment, but it was expensive for her at $1,700 per month for rent and utilities. At that time, her work was quite erratic, so she was late on her rent payments, and this compounded her anxiety about her finances.

Hannah and her boyfriend (now husband) who works two minimum-wage jobs decided to move in together, but they had to “look and look and look” for months for an affordable rental home that would house them, their children and their pets. Fortunately, after years of struggling with high housing costs, Hannah and her husband now pay a much more affordable rent of $1200 per month.

The thing about RV parks

Jill is a 55-year-old woman who works a primary job that pays slightly over minimum wage and works a second job to make ends meet. She has been renting since she was 16 and is a single mother to four children. Jill previously rented a 2-bedroom home in Walla Walla, but had to move out when the landlords announced that they were going to raise the rent to $1,650 per month. She saw no way she can afford to rent a home in Walla Walla anymore. As a solution, she purchased a 25-year-old RV. But because most RV parks in Walla Walla require the RVs to be newer, Jill had to move to Dayton. She now commutes to work everyday in Walla Walla.

In the first RV park where she lived, there were many drug-related issues, and people broke into her home twice. Not feeling safe, Jill moved to another park where there are still drug-related issues, but she feels safer.

In search of a more peaceful environment

Ken, a young father with primary custody of his two children, works full-time and was able to find an affordable three-bedroom apartment, which he shares with a roommate. But his next-door neighbors have regular domestic disputes, which his children can hear. In an attempt to provide his children with a more peaceful environment, Ken has tried to buy a home, but all the homes on the market that he can afford are in such bad condition, he said, that they look like they should be “condemned.”

Housing ups and downs

Jeannie McIntosh and her husband are workers who have struggled for decades to find and keep decent, safe, affordable housing.

Jeannie moved to Walla Walla as a child, while her husband was born and raised here, and the two of them raised their children here. When their four children were little, they could not find an affordable place big enough for their family, and they ended up in a 1-bedroom home. They received a housing voucher, which decreased their rental expenses and opened up many more housing options for them. However, their income later increased, and they had to relinquish their voucher.

Jeannie and her husband then bought an older mobile home in a manufactured housing park and lived there until their youngest child was an adult. After moving out of state, they returned to Walla Walla and lived with Jeannie’s husband’s parents for a year until they found a tiny house for $500 per month, where they lived for five years. They moved again in order to help their son and daughter-in-law out by sharing housing costs with them. When their living situation turned unhealthy and unsafe, they moved in with Jeannie’s sister-in-law and her husband. Meanwhile they searched for their own rental home.

After nine months, Jeannie and her husband found a rental they could afford in Umapine for $750 per month, and they now commute everyday to Walla Walla for work.

The reality of rentals

Working to provide for oneself and one’s family is a source of pride. But our escalating housing prices and extremely low rental vacancy rates make it increasingly difficult for working people to be able to afford decent homes. All of these stories above are of people in our region with regular jobs. Even with steady low and moderate incomes, they have struggled to find and keep safe and affordable rental housing. Such struggles can be particularly difficult for single parents relying on one income to sustain their families.

A number of these people found rental homes that they could afford through word-of-mouth and personal connections, not a property management company or an internet website. Some of them could rely on family support while they sought to find their own homes. They were fortunate to finally find homes. Yet their stories of luck are a sign that our rental housing market is not healthy. And their experiences show that rental homes here that are affordable for working families are not always safe.

Safe, affordable homes are a fundamental foundation for families, and the community at large benefits by having affordable homes available for all its members. When people live in stable homes close to where they work, study and receive services, they are better able to engage in their jobs, their education and their community. Yet, if working people here cannot find decent homes they can afford, eventually they will have to move out of our region.

For our region to be healthy and inclusive, we must have safe, affordable homes for the workers who sustain our communities.

Affordable Housing Implementation Task Force Public Outreach and Education Subcommittee members are Karen Carman, Erendira Cruz, Gustavo Reyna, Nancy Riggle, and Roger Trick. Community Council staff are Rachel Elfenbein and Catherine Veninga. For information about Community Council’s affordable housing work, contact Rachel at relfenbein@wwcommunitycouncil.org.