Central Oregon rental costs outpace minimum wage

High demand for rentals puts squeeze on low-wage earners

By Andrew Clevenger / The Bulletin / @andclev

Published Apr 28, 2014 at 12:01AM

WASHINGTON — Throughout Central Oregon, people earning minimum wage cannot afford a one-bedroom apartment without working more than 40 hours a week, according to a recent study of affordable housing.

Oregon raised its minimum wage to $9.10 an hour in January, a result of an annual adjustment for inflation. But to afford a one-bedroom apartment in Deschutes County, a worker would have to make $12.40 an hour, according to figures from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which calls this figure the “housing wage.”

The housing wage is based on a 40-hour work week and the assumption that one should spend no more than 30 percent of income on housing.

In Crook County, the housing wage is $10.58, while in Jefferson County it’s $9.73.

To make matters worse, there are very few vacancies in the area. According to the annual housing survey by the Central Oregon Rental Owners Association and regional housing authority Housing Works released earlier this month, the overall vacancy rate is 0.7 percent, down from 1 percent a year ago. In 2009, the vacancy rate was 12.4 percent.

The tight rental market in Bend is especially hard on low-income earners, said Kenny LaPoint, Housing Works’ housing and resident services director.

“It’s tough on everyone right now, but we’re seeing a lot of our voucher clients (who receive federal aid for housing) be priced out of the market,” he said.

With demand high and supply low, landlords have tightened up on their screening process and are demanding larger security deposits and pet deposits, he said.

“That’s putting additional strain on folks, particularly low-income folks who don’t have a lot of savings,” he said.

Consequently, more renters are living farther from the Bend metropolitan area, he said.

“People get priced out of Bend, they start to go to Redmond, then La Pine,” he said. “Then as you get priced out of those markets, you go even further out.”

Kevin Restine, general manager of PLUS Property Management and president of the Central Oregon Rental Owners Association, said the high number of foreclosures in Central Oregon during the recession pushed many homeowners into the rental market.

Five years ago, vacancy was high and rents were low, and there was little financial incentive to invest in rental properties, he said. Now that demand is high, development will start again, but it will take time to feel the effect, he said.

“Tenants feel like they’re victimized because of the market, but in the end, that will create housing, and the pendulum will swing back,” he said.

Restine said it is too soon to tell what impact the opening of Oregon State University-Cascades Campus will have on the local rental market.

Starting July 1, landlords will not be able to deny applicants because their income derives from federal Section 8 housing vouchers, under 2013’s Housing Choice Act.

In the current environment, this may not help low-income applicants, but it does make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of housing vouchers, said LaPoint.

Low-income renters have to be persistent, stay in touch with property managers and check in frequently to see where they stand on waiting lists for affordable housing, he said. This demonstrates reliability and makes them more attractive as prospective tenants, he said.

And in current conditions, low-income renters should not give notice to their landlords without already having another place to live lined up, he said.

“We’re seeing people who should not be homeless become homeless because they’ve given notice,” he said.

Barry Zigas, the Consumer Federation of America’s director of housing policy, said the lack of supply in some housing markets can become a big problem for low-end earners.

“What low-wage renters do is end up paying too much of their income for housing, and are therefore in jeopardy of not being able to pay other bills” or being evicted, he said. They also tend to live in more overcrowded conditions, he said.

“You rent a smaller place than you really need because that’s all you can afford,” he said.

Typically, a vacancy rate of 3 to 5 percent is seen as a healthy ratio for both landlords and tenants, he said.

— Reporter: 202-662-7456, aclevenger@bendbulletin.com