With high costs for materials and skyrocketing demand, more and more Columbia County residents are scrambling to find affordable housing.
Many would-be renters with full-time jobs have shared their struggles finding housing over social media, citing one of two issues: They either cannot afford a property, or none are available.
“Ted & I are about to be homeless,” one St. Helens resident wrote in a social media post. “We got told (in) October they demand us out now, so if anyone knows of any openings, I have called every single apartment in St. Helens, and they are all full.”
And the problem appears to be getting worse. According to Community Action Team’s Heather Johnson, 157 of the 5,078 people who sought housing assistance from CAT since March 2020 did so within the past month.
State, county challenge
Damon Runberg, a regional economist with the Oregon Employment Department, shared his assessment of the Oregon housing market heading into 2022 in a guest column published in the May 27 edition of The Chronicle.
According to Runberg, home prices in Oregon were up “a blistering 10%” from the previous year for the first quarter of 2022.
“Before the pandemic, the statewide housing market was seeing annualized gains of closer to 3%,” he wrote. “The fast growth in home prices the past two years has pushed real (inflation-adjusted) housing prices in most markets across the state higher than levels in 2007 during the housing bubble.”
Johnson said the number of people seeking housing assistance in Columbia County has “increased for sure.”
“One caveat to our past month numbers as well as the overall last year, (is) in December of 2021 OHCS contracted with an agency in Washington State to deliver OERAP 2 and 3 for the state,” Johnson said. “There are a number of people who would normally be accessing housing services through CAT who are accessing assistance through the OERAP portal. As a result, our in-house numbers are a bit skewed and not entirely reflective of the current need in our county.”
When The Chronicle asked Johnson whether she sees affordable housing as a challenge, particularly in St. Helens, she answered, “Absolutely. It is a challenge throughout our entire county.”
The Chronicle spoke with Peggy Howell, a principal broker at John L. Scott Real Estate in Scappoose, to gain insight into the housing shortage and affordability crisis.
Howell told The Chronicle that there are no vacant units in any of the 20 rental properties she manages.
Howell also said fewer people are leaving.
“I don’t have a lot of turnover,” Howell said. “I’ve got some renters that have been in 20 years.”
According to Howell, many brokers also raised their rates, several up to 9%, to compensate for the rising costs of materials and services.
“Between property taxes going up and water going up and insurance going up, if you don’t raise your prices every year, you’re making less every year,” she said. “So it’s a problem, and of course, there’s a moratorium on you cannot raise any more than 10%.”
Mick Taylor, a principal broker in Oregon, said that while the supply and demand imbalance is a major factor driving the rental prices up, “we have to talk about materials and supply chains, which are also continuing to keep prices high because materials are more expensive.”
Windows and air conditioning units are facing the largest share of shortages and delays, according to Taylor.
“If you can sell your windows for more money, then that’s what you do, and I have no problem with that,” he said. “But then the ability to make more windows and be competitive with your prices, all of a sudden it wasn’t just about increasing your profits a little bit, it was the fact that hey, we can’t make enough product. So, of course, it’s going to be more expensive, and we’re still struggling with that.”
Columbia County’s housing market has seen a 21.5% year-over-year increase, according to the real estate website redfin.com.
Renterinsights.com lists the average St. Helens apartment rental at $1,125 per month for a 2-bedroom unit and $1,350 for a 1-bedroom unit.
The price of a Studio at St. Helens Place, one of three St. Helens properties with current availability, is listed at $1,435 a month - a 19.6% rise since its rental price in July 2021.
While securing affordable housing in Columbia County still poses a challenge to residents, new developments are taking shape.
Olivia Whittaker, social media and marketing manager for Scappoose Candlelight Apartments, estimates the first building will open to renters in late July or early August.
“We don’t have a set date exactly, but (expect) sometime this summer,” she said.
Between the two buildings, there are 80 units, and residents will have access to several amenities, including a pool.
“There is a waitlist. I don’t believe that it’s full,” Whittaker said. “If anyone is interested, they can always call us.”
St. Helens City officials have pledged to address the housing problem by “working closely with developers to facilitate the permitting process so that permits can be issued as quickly as possible,” according to St. Helens Communications Officer Crystal King. “The City is also focused on addressing major infrastructure needs as our community continues to grow.”
“We need to ensure that we can meet the growing demands for water, sewer, roads, parks, sidewalks, etcetera,” King said.
As part of its 50 Year Plan, Scappoose City Council adopted Goal 2D – Develop a Long-Term Comprehensive Community Vision for fiscal year 2021 – 2022 in order to look at land needs over the next 50 years, according to Scappoose City Manager Alexandra Rains.
A 2023-2043 Housing Needs Analysis commissioned by the city revealed that nearly a third of Scappoose residents spend more than 30% of their income on housing costs.
“To address the affordability issue in Scappoose, the City will be looking at what measures they can take to accommodate future needed housing,” Rains said.
Some of these measures include completing a Housing Needs and Economic Opportunities Analysis, updating the Comprehensive Plan and Development Code, and completing an Urban Growth Boundary Analysis to see if an expansion, swap of UGB lands, or establishment of Urban Reserves is warranted.
City administration expects the 50 Year Plan will span several fiscal years and be completed by 2024.
The Chronicle authored a Facebook post asking for renters to describe their experience renting in St. Helens and Scappoose. The post received 59 comments. Read the comments on The Chronicle’s Facebook page.
Community Action Team helps connect people with affordable housing in their community. For more information, go to their website: https://cat-team.org.