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December 7th, 2011 12:01 am HANNAH HOFFMAN | Cover Story

Renter’s Hell

Portlanders pay a steep price in the nation’s toughest rental market.

LUCKY TO HAVE A HOUSE: Lindsay Bozanich, 29, and her roommates Tony Murray (left), John Manlove and Skye Dorsett (not pictured) searched for two months to find a rental house in Northeast Portland. The city’s rents have gone up so much, Bozanich says, “It seems like Portland is getting too big for its britches.”
IMAGE: robertdelahanty.net

Portlanders traditionally have tended to buy homes, not rent. About 55 percent of Portland-area residents own their homes, compared to 50 percent in Seattle and 38 percent in San Francisco, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. 

That’s because even as home price have risen here in the past two decades, they’ve remained low compared to those in other big West Coast cities. 

As a result, the relatively soft demand for rentals meant the city simply did not need as many apartment units—until now.

Developer Dwight Unti, head of Tokola Properties in Gresham, says Portland has traditionally needed about 4,000 new units of housing per year to keep up with growth in the metro area, but says that need hasn’t been met for the past five years. “We’re way behind the curve,” he says. 

Today, the area including Portland, Vancouver and Beaverton has about 97,000 rental units. 

As recently as 2005, a lot of those units were available—one out of every 10, according to Census Bureau records.

The rental market suddenly got tighter in 2007. The reason? The national economy was surging, more and more people wanted to buy homes, and credit was readily available. In Portland, developers started taking rental units off the market and converting them to condos.

McMullen says the low vacancy rate four years ago was a symptom of a very different kind of rental market—a “supply phenomenon,” he calls it. 

When the economy tanked in 2008, vacancy rates shot up again—to 7 percent. McMullen says more condos went on the market as rentals because people couldn’t sell them.

But the whipsawing continued. Two years later, the vacancy rate dropped closer to pre-recession levels—but for far different reasons.

Banks tightened their credit rules, making it tougher to buy homes, and many people couldn’t afford to stay in the homes or faced foreclosure.

That’s left far more people chasing the too few apartments left in the city. 

Joe Colasurdo moved to Portland from Bellingham, Wash., nearly two months ago and still hasn’t found his own place to live. He’s staying with his girlfriend, Renee, and her two roommates, but the situation has worn thin. 

In a Gladstone apartment Colasurdo, 25, viewed last month, black mold coated the shower tiles—except where duct tape clung to keep other tiles in place. “I’m surprised the landlord even had me come over,” he says. 

It wasn’t the only time he looked at what turned out to be a dump. “They would have pictures online and it would look really nice, and I would go there and it would be like, ‘Wow, I’d rather live in my mom’s basement.’”

Many people say they have faced similar situations looking for an apartment, with little or no choice when it comes to quality. 

In September, Zac Thayer, a 20-year-old punk-rock musician, started trolling Craigslist for a house or an apartment to share that would cost him no more than $500 a month. It took two months, including weeks spent sleeping on friends’ couches.

“I got pretty panicked,” Thayer says. 

Most places he saw were disgusting, he says. The worst was a house near Southeast 52nd Avenue and Belmont Street—like a sauna inside, with a once-white carpet turned brown from cat feces smashed into the carpet. 

“It’s almost impossible to find somewhere livable in my price range,” he says.

The search becomes more complicated for people who need to live in a specific neighborhood, especially if it’s close in.

Bozanich, the woman who found fingernails in her new apartment’s bed, needed to live close to the city center. She’d been living with her parents in North Plains, but she was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer and wanted to be nearer to her clinic in North Portland. 

The neighborhoods Bozanich desired—inner Northeast and Southeast, downtown and Northwest—have vacancy rates lower than the city as a whole—from 2.1 percent to 2.5 percent. 

That demand means rents are increasing faster than in places such as Oregon City, Gladstone and Gresham, where the vacancy rates range from 5 to 5.5 percent. (Rents in Gladstone and Oregon City have actually dropped in the past year.)

Bozanich saw this firsthand. She looked for a month but couldn’t find a place for less than $1,200 a month. 

She found her Northwest Portland studio in March. Six months later, she was looking with three other people to rent a house. They waged a daily search for two months, spending hours hitting the refresh button on Craigslist.

But the places they liked were snapped up within minutes. They prepared stacks of rental applications and arrived early at open houses, only to find a line had already formed. 

“We got really frustrated,” Bozanich says. “We’d draw out a map of different neighborhoods and just start bickering about just having to live farther out, and I would be like, ‘I don’t want to spend money to live in a place I don’t really like.’”

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