Affordable housing proves increasingly hard to find

Laura Daughenbaugh and her teenage daughter have been living in their rental home on Vashon for more than five years, but their house is now for sale, and they need to move this month. Now, Daughenbaugh — a single mother with her own business —  has joined the ranks of islanders in the search for affordable housing, which many on Vashon say is becoming increasingly elusive.

“This is the first time in 20 years I can’t find something,” Daughenbaugh  said. “I have always been able to find something.”

Although she has been looking for three months, so far she has found nothing in her price range — about $600 a month, she said. That is a small sum, she acknowledged, but she is open to a variety of options, including a work trade to help lower the rent, but so far — nothing.

“Even studios are more than I can afford,” she said.

Indeed, people involved in Vashon’s rental housing market, from property managers to social service providers — say the picture on Vashon is bleak for those with moderate and low incomes, and it has grown even more dire in the last year.

Bret Taitch, of Vashon Maury Island Property Management, recently talked about the shift he has seen in the rental market. In the summer of 2012, there were as many as 23 houses on the rental market, he said, and while the owners might have been hoping to rent them for $1,300 to $1,400 a month, they were lucky to get $1,100 to $1,200. Just recently, however, he rented out a three-bedroom home in Gold Beach for $1,600 a month, a figure he says he believes is $300 more than the owners would have gotten a year ago.

“The pendulum has completely swung the other way,” he said.

At the beginning of last summer, Taitch said he began to see fewer rentals available and he received so many calls when places were listed that he stopped putting “for rent” signs up.

A longtime island renter himself, he and his wife recently bought a home, but before they could do so, they had to leave their rental home. For four months, he said, their family, which includes two boys, lived in a tiny apartment.

“Even as a property manager,” he said, “there was nothing I could find or afford.”

Emma Amiad, who is a buyer’s broker and also the president of the Interfaith Council to Prevent Homelessness (IFCH), said she is acutely aware of the rental problem, but noted the situation  is not unique to Vashon.

“It’s a story that’s everywhere,” she said.

Indeed, since 2008, the number of renters has been rising across the country, and in 2011, the number of rental households increased by 1 million, the largest one-year increase since the early 1980s, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC). Nationally, the coalition reports, apartment vacancy rates have plummeted and rents have risen.

In many areas, including Washington, wages have not kept pace with housing costs, compounding the problem.

In this state, the fair market rent (a figure the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development determines) for a two-bedroom apartment is $966, according to the NLIHC.

In Washington, the coalition reports, the estimated average hourly wage for a renter is $14.91. In order to afford the $966 rent at that wage, a renter would have to work 50 hours per week, 52 weeks per year. Should that renter wish to work 40 hours a week, he or she would need to make $18.58 an hour. This figure is what experts consider the housing wage, and it is the 15th highest in the country, meaning that regarding housing, Washington is the 15th most expensive state.

On Vashon, county records indicate that average rents are slightly higher than the state’s fair market rate. On the island, the average rates are $870 for a one-bedroom house or apartment, $1,060 for two bedrooms and $1,560 for three bedrooms.

While finding an apartment can be a challenge for renters with moderate means, people with the lowest incomes face the most challenging situation. Across the country, the coalition reports, there are just 30 affordable, available units for every 100 extremely low-income households hoping to rent.

The same challenging picture exists on Vashon, social service providers say.

Nancy Vanderpool, the treasurer and main contact for assistance through IFCH said last year the nonprofit spent 38 percent of its budget, some $20,000, on rental assistance. Vanderpool added there was a notable lack of housing below $950 per month.

At the end of the summer, she said, there is always an increase in the number of people contacting her for housing help, but last year that was particularly true. She added that at any given time in the fall, she was helping 10 different parties search for housing — and there was none to be found.

“I could not recommend anything,” she said. “Just waiting lists.”

At Vashon Household, which owns four apartment complexes for people with low incomes, Executive Director Chris Szala said the waiting list for housing through his organization has 50 people on it.

Szala said that while he would like to see more people renting rooms to others at affordable rates and others building accessory dwelling units — a recommendation Vanderpool put forth — he believes a more systemic approach to the island’s housing shortage is critical. To that end, he said, Vashon Household has been working with its nonprofit partners on the island and hopes to build an apartment complex in town that would provide housing for many people with different kinds of needs. Such a project, he said, would likely be five years out.

“Our plan is to lock up a property or two,” he said. “We want to maximize what we can do, and we have been looking at a variety of configurations.”

Currently, Szala said, the most popular model of affordable housing is to build housing and provide support services as well.

“People with very, very low incomes often have other issues that need to be addressed to help them stay in their homes,” he said.

Two social service organizations that have been talking with Szala about housing needs for their constituents are Seeds 4 Success, which serves people with disabilities, and The DoVE Project, which works with survivors of domestic violence.

Lee Kopines, the executive director at Seeds 4 Success, recently noted her support for such housing and believes it could be a large help to many people that her organization serves, including those who receive Supplemental Security Income Benefits (SSI).

“People that are on SSI get $721 a month for food, rent, clothes, everything,” she said. “There is just no way that people on disability can afford the rents on the island.”

Kopines said her organization serves between 30 and 60 people a year and that housing is an issue for all of them.

Her hope, she said, is that by working with Vashon Household, they could build small units for people with developmental disabilities and include a large common area. They could then pool the hours of each person’s caregiver so there would be plenty of support for the residents.

“I think Vashon Household could easily build 100 apartments and have them filled,” she said. “I think people don’t realize what the need is.”

Betsey Archambault, DoVE’s executive director, also recently voiced her support for such a project, but said for those she helps, the housing picture is complicated.

She has several clients right now who would benefit from transitional housing, where they could have a good place to live while they sort out the next steps of their lives, she said. But then there must be options for them when it is time for them to move on.

“What happens then?” she asked. “There is such a dearth of affordable housing. Then where do you go? If there is not a next step available, then you are back to square one.”

But, she said, she is clear about the need, even if the full picture is a complicated one.

“To heal and make strategic plans, you cannot do that if you are homeless or couch surfing or living in car,” she said.

DoVE would have to grow and do a considerable amount of fundraising to make  a housing program work, she said, and despite her reservations, she is interested.

“Something has to be done, and this would be a good first step,” she said.

The cost of living on the island is also a concern for island seniors, many people say. Amiad singled out widows on Social Security as facing extreme housing challenges.

“They are still living on money they started collecting when they were in their 60s from their husband,” she said.

Typically, that money is well under $1,000 a  month, she added.

“These people are getting squeezed out of here,” she said. “We have a fair number of little old ladies living in someone’s backyard in an old RV or tent. … It really is true, and it really is happening here.”

DoVE’s Archambault noted the amount of work such a project would require, but like others who work in the housing and social service fields on the island, she spoke with guarded optimism about its possibilities.

“I think if it comes to fruition, it would be this rocking resource for the island because there is most assuredly a need,” she said. “It would take an awful lot of thought and an awful lot of planning, but it is also necessary and possible.”

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