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Officials trying to solve the low-income rental riddle

Kristine Waits holds her son, Camden, 3, as her daughters, Avayah (left), and Lexi (right), 7, hang out in the shared backyard at their home in Lewiston on June 2. (Pete Caster / Lewiston Tribune)
Kristine Waits holds her son, Camden, 3, as her daughters, Avayah (left), and Lexi (right), 7, hang out in the shared backyard at their home in Lewiston on June 2. (Pete Caster / Lewiston Tribune)

They are the lucky ones.

Single mother Kristin Waits rents a well-kept, two-bedroom basement apartment with a shared backyard in Lewiston for $600 per month. All utilities are covered in that price, including wireless internet, and her dog is allowed.

“I’ve got three young kids, so I needed something big enough,” Waits, 27, said recently of the apartment, which she was able to rent from a friend.

But according to local officials, property managers, developers and advocacy groups, Waits’ situation is a rare exception to a rental housing market that is putting the squeeze on low-income tenants.

“Our vacancy rate is, like, zero percent,” said Shannon Ankney, a leasing specialist with Century 21 Price Right Property Management in Lewiston.

Jon Lang, owner of the Ray J. White and Sons property management company in Lewiston, said he typically has just a handful of vacancies in the low-income range out of the 700 units in his portfolio.

Ankney said a healthy vacancy rate is about 10 percent. That allows renters to comparison shop, and keeps property owners on top of maintenance issues. But city of Lewiston building official John Smith said that when vacancy rates approach zero, there’s not much incentive for owners to invest in their properties.

“There’s a waiting list for them all,” Smith said of rental properties in the low-income range. “It drives the price up, because owners can get that price. And if they raise the price by $200, it will drive out the lower end, and they will get a better renter who’s more affluent with a better job who’s more likely to pay.”

And according to the most prolific builder of apartment buildings in Lewiston over the past few years, the chances are slim that anyone will add to the low-income rental housing inventory.

“You can’t build anything and make it pay off in that range,” said Noel Blum of Blum Construction, which focuses on middle-income rentals. “Even the one-bedrooms, you have to (charge) more money for that.”

Blum said there is a high demand for one-bedroom apartments. But it costs almost the same amount to build a two-bedroom apartment. “And with two bedrooms, you get a couple hundred bucks more for them, and they pay off.”

Income-to-rent ratios out of whack

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, affordable monthly rent for a modest one-bedroom rental at fair market value in Nez Perce County is $377 for a minimum-wage worker. In Asotin County, it is $572 per month.

At those rates, a person earning Idaho’s $7.25 minimum wage would have to work 57 hours each week to afford rent. Across the river, a person would have to work 38 hours per week, thanks to the state’s much higher $11 minimum wage.

But Waits said finding a clean place in that price range is nearly impossible.

“I just couldn’t afford a two-bedroom anywhere,” even with the $15 per hour she earns as a therapy technician for developmentally disabled people. “It’s good money for the valley, but a lot of people I know who work there are having to live in low-income homes because of the way the rental market is right now.”

Most landlords or rental agencies wanted immaculate credit, she said, and at least $2,500 to move in. “It’s been insane.”

There are plenty of places available in the middle- or upper-income range, she added, but those are out of reach for most hourly workers.

Ankney handles mostly rental homes for Century 21, while Lang’s inventory is predominantly apartments. Century 21’s inventory has grown from about 30 homes to more than 100 over the last two years, Ankney said, partly because owners are beginning to realize how much they can earn by renting their properties.

But those places range in price from $800 per month to $1,700, a number that surpasses most mortgage payments and pushes low-income renters out of the picture. Lang said he usually has a few low-income rentals available.

“But a lot of those get spoken for before (prospective tenants) even visit our website,” Lang said, noting that people who do land a good, cheap place usually have to come to his office in person and get lucky.

He said the company may add a “coming up” list of soon-to-be-vacant apartments to help take the luck factor out of the equation.

Both he and Ankney strongly suggested that people get preapproved with their chosen rental agency. It can cost between $30 and $40, but may make the difference between landing a place and missing out.

“If you find a place and you’re not preapproved, you could lose it if it’s taken the same day,” Ankney said, adding that it happens all the time.

Obstacles for developers

Lewiston’s sluggish annual growth rate of about 1 percent doesn’t do much to instill confidence in developers considering the low-income housing market. But Blum said a host of other factors also work to keep the potential players sidelined.

Steady increases in utility rates and the property tax hike from the Lewiston high school bond are making it more expensive to do business, he said. And the lack of infrastructure in much of the Lewiston Orchards makes in prohibitive to develop any multifamily housing there, let alone low-income housing.

“The developer, when he goes to build there, he has to develop that property,” Blum said. “And that’s an additional cost that you can’t charge more (rent) for. The bad planning from 50 years ago, now all of a sudden everybody’s paying for it, including the developer.”

Lewiston has made some efforts at stimulating low-income housing development. Community Development Director Laura Von Tersch said the city uses its annual Community Development Block Grant funds from the federal government to offer loans, some to property owners for building rehabilitation and others for major projects.

The purchase and remodel of the Craftin Apartments on Cedar Avenue into the Seapointe Apartments with 50 affordable units and the construction of the Kinsale Place and Tullamore senior apartments on Bryden Avenue – all in the Orchards – are examples, Von Tersch said. But the grants can only go so far.

“CDBG was only a small financial component of these projects because our entitlement is so small,” she said.

The city council has also enacted a developer incentive that waives building permit fees for projects that meet certain criteria. New York-based developer Mark Alexander took advantage of the program in September to save almost $34,000 on his $2.5 million apartment complex next to the rehabilitated Southgate Plaza on Bryden Avenue.

That project is aimed at upper-income tenants, however. City Councilor Bob Blakey voted against the waiver, partly because no low-income housing was included in the two-building complex. Blakey asked that a low-income housing requirement be added to the program, but the council has failed to act on that suggestion.

There are other programs that incentivize the development of low-income housing, but they are illegal in Idaho, a state that emphasizes private property rights.

Tenants have rights

Smith, the Lewiston building official, said his office fields dozens of complaints from tenants who can’t get their landlords to fix problems ranging from mold to leaky roofs. Many are unfounded, but those that are can’t be proven if the tenant makes the mistake of moving out before taking appropriate action.

“Once they’re out of the building, we have no right of entry,” Smith said. “If they’ve moved out and then come to me and say, ‘Hey, there’s a problem,’ I can’t just go over and get into it.”

He said every renter should get a copy of the Landlord and Tenant Manual offered by the Idaho Attorney General’s Office, which is available at http://www.ag.idaho.gov/publications/consumer/LandlordTenant.pdf. Washington’s attorney general offers a list of similar resources at http://www.atg.wa.gov/landlord-tenant.

In general, the Idaho manual advises that a tenant notify a landlord in writing of a problem and wait three days for repair. If no action is taken, the tenant may then sue the landlord. But Smith said many tenants are reluctant to exercise their rights because they fear eviction, either by the landlord in retaliation, or by the city if the property is condemned.

“We take no pleasure in evicting people out of properties,” Smith said. “We’ll work with landlords and tenants almost to the point of ridiculousness to try to resolve an issue. But sometimes the answer is it’s just not safe and you’re going to have to move.”

Waits said the Idaho Landlord and Tenant Manual was a lifesaver when she had a dispute with a landlord when she briefly lived in Worley, Idaho. Now people come to her for advice.

“A lot of my friends heard about our situation in Worley, and that I’d gotten familiar with the landlord-tenant laws,” she said. “They would come to me with questions because they didn’t know. A lot of younger people, or those just starting out, don’t know that they have those rights.”


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