LYNNWOOD — Hal Zack is old school.
In his apartment, a checkbook sits on the corner of a screen-free desk. A beige landline with a curly-fry cord hearkens to decades past. A thick stack of stamps and stationery sit poised and ready for mailing. File folders pad towering shelves instead of a computer’s memory drive. He still hasn’t transitioned online.
Computers are expensive, the 72-year-old explained, and he has no interest in using one. But in our modern age, that makes finding a new apartment all the more difficult.
When Zack signed his rental agreement in 2001, his one-bed, one-bath unit cost $500 per month. At first, the changes started small: $10 increases for a few years, then jumping $25. But this year, he’s looking at a $300 hike. Now, the same apartment — with no significant improvements in 22 years — costs $1,710 per month.
His pipes screech and shake when the water is turned on. The carpet hasn’t been replaced in at least two decades, though he asked for it to be replaced upon move-in in 2001. To compensate, he has taken to buying cheap mats and creating a patchwork of rugs across the floor. This year, some tenants at A’Cappella Apartments are seeing rent increases up to $500 per month.
Adjusted for inflation since 2001, Zack’s rent at the complex spanning two city blocks in Lynnwood should only be $853 today. Instead, he pays about twice that.
On a fixed income, it doesn’t leave much wiggle room. Yet it’s better than the alternative.
“I don’t want to be homeless,” Zack said.
How did we get here?
In 2020, Gov. Jay Inslee put a moratorium on evictions and froze rent increases for some tenants due to COVID-19. Those orders remained in place for over a year, aiming to protect people from becoming homeless in the depths of the pandemic.
The federal government also rolled out unprecedented aid: The Emergency Rental Assistance Plan (ERAP), American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), the CARES Act and Treasury Rent Assistance Program (TRAP) pumped millions of dollars into people’s pockets.
Since the start of the pandemic, Snohomish County has doled out $123 million in rent and utility assistance, said Kelsey Nyland, a spokesperson in the county executive’s office. According to the county, that cash helped to keep 13,485 people afloat.
While the funding was flowing, the county provided an average of $8,000 to each client, according to the county’s data. About 36% of people who requested financial support via the 211 hotline received it.
Dennis Blum, assistant community director at A’Cappella Apartments, said federal funds helped many of their tenants. Before the pandemic, A’Cappella had $0 in unpaid rent from tenants, but during the pandemic, that number rose quickly. Soon, they were $300,000 deep in delinquent rent, and “it was terrifying,” he said.
“The money would rack up, and two, three, five, six months of rent would pile up,” Blum said. “And then Volunteers of America would just send us a check (for the tenant) and take out their whole balance.”
But now, the federal funding is drying up.
And as pandemic restrictions expired, the moratoriums on evictions and rent increases did, too.
Those three factors are enough to create a big problem, explained Galina Volchkova, senior director of housing services at Volunteers of America. However, along with the lack of available housing, the state is facing a true tempest.
“We’re probably short 150,000 units and that number might even be bigger,” said state Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds, chair of the state Housing Committee and a member of Snohomish County Council.
Where are we now?
Washington will need 1.1 million homes over the next 20 years to keep pace with the expected population growth, according to projections from the state Department of Commerce. More than half of those new units need to be “affordable for residents at the lowest income levels,” the report stated.
Snohomish County alone will need more than 143,000 more housing units. Yet in Everett, for example, some of the biggest recent housing developments offer few or no units below market rate.
Neither Waterfront Place Apartments nor The Marquee in north Everett reserve any affordable units. Downtown, the Nimbus Apartments reserved 33 of 165 units as “affordable studios” for people earning less than $52,000 annually.
There are some exceptions.
Once completed, Four Corners Apartments on Evergreen Way will offer more than 400 income-restricted units meant for workers earning about half of the area’s average salary. A single renter who earns less than $63,350 in Snohomish County meets the income restrictions for the new complex. The income limit for a four-person household is $90,500.
Before the pandemic, year-to-year rent increases of 3% to 5% were fairly standard, Volchkova said. But now, Snohomish County is seeing typical increases of 7%, with some properties jumping more than 20%.
For single parents or anyone on a fixed income, affording those increases would be nearly impossible, Volchkova said. People working at the entry level are being forced to work two to three jobs to stay housed and fed, she continued.
In one case brought to Volunteers of America, a two-bedroom apartment near Everett jumped from $1,705 to $4,000 monthly. Since 2019, landlords must give 60 days notice before increasing rent, according to a state law.
Rob Trickler, owner of All County Evictions in Everett, has been president of the Washington Landlord Association for 13 years.
Trickler said not all landlords want to price their properties at market value or above — some keep rent just below as an incentive for their tenants to stay. However, for almost two years, Trickler said, no landlord got to raise rent at all.
“They couldn’t raise rent, and it didn’t matter if the taxes went up. It didn’t matter if maintenance went up,” Trickler said. “And then there’s inflation — how it’s impacted the cost of repairs.”
“I’m routinely starting evictions for people that are trying to recover $20,000 to $40,000 losses — and that’s just one unit,” Trickler continued. “You get a 250-unit complex, and you have a 10% to 15% rate of people that aren’t paying for two years. … That’s a lot of money that’s lost, and it has to be made up somehow.”
Volchkova is seeing the same thing, saying landlords are now “making up for lost time.”
‘Every cent I have’
Everett resident Tiny York, 75, is facing a $500 rent increase at Canopy Apartments. She receives Social Security and disability pay, but the increase is too steep to afford.
“It would take every cent I have, and I’m supporting my sister who has Alzheimer’s,” York said.
York’s apartment complex upped other fees, too.
“I have to pay $45 monthly for a parking space,” York said. “I’ve never even owned a car!”
A few months ago, York’s apartment flooded, she said. Water poured in and the walls bubbled out. Inches of stagnant water soaked her floor for two days, but Canopy would not replace the carpet, York said. She is concerned about how mold will affect her existing health conditions.
Canopy could not be reached for comment.
York doesn’t know where else to go. Neither does Zack.
“People may need to move out with the big question, ‘Where?’ Because it’s near impossible to find any cheaper housing anywhere around,” Volchkova said. “But then you don’t know if this new landlord is going to (raise rent) next year, so you’re moving just keeping your fingers crossed.”
York doesn’t even know if she could afford to move, seeing as she doesn’t have a car and would need to hire a company.
In October, the Social Security Administration acknowledged an 8.7% increase in the cost-of-living adjustment, the largest change in four decades. Under the new COLA, the average monthly Social Security benefits as of January 2023 were $1,827.
After rent, that check would leave Zack with $117 to cover all of his other expenses: food, transportation, health — and maybe moving costs.
“We keep pushing lower-income households out of the area, and many of these households have children enrolled in school districts,” Volchkova said. “This is way too disruptive for children, first of all, to experience relocation multiple times and disconnection from friends and from the learning process.”
“And for low-income seniors, they can literally have no choices of where to go,” Volchkova continued. “They’re not tied to the school district, but they’re tied to their doctors. Changing doctors when you have a disability or you’re a low-income senior … it impacts your health, your well being, your stress.”
To move into a new place, tenants need to demonstrate three times the rent in income and be prepared to pay double rent up front. For those working paycheck to paycheck, that amount of liquid worth may be impossible to show, Volchkova explained.
Those “who pay more than 30% of their income for housing” and subsequently “may have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation and medical care” are considered “cost-burdened” by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. As of December 2021 in Snohomish County, 33% of households were considered cost-burdened.
To stay in the unit that jumped to $4,000 monthly, the tenant would need a six-figure household income of at least $144,000. The average individual income in Snohomish County is about $42,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“These days, people are paying 50% or 70% of their income towards rent,” Volchkova said. “It’s a real problem.”
Where do we go from here?
State legislators were discussing a buffet of options to boost housing stock this year: zoning changes, subsidized housing, accessory dwelling units (ADUs), permitting reform, rent increase caps and transit-oriented development.
Roughly 30 bills about housing and homelessness were still in play as of Friday, according to the progressive organization Fuse Washington.
“What’s really exciting about this (legislative) session is we have a bipartisan and bicameral effort to tackle this issue head on,” Peterson said.
House Bill 1110 would spur the construction of multifamily housing units like duplexes and triplexes. It passed the House 75-21 and received a hearing in the Senate Friday. Luke Distelhorst, a Snohomish County HASCO board member, called it the “biggest bill” to address the housing crisis.
“A lot of cities have 60% to 70% of their land reserved for single detached unit housing only,” Distelhorst said. “I think people are finally realizing that this is not a political issue — housing is a human right.”
He said the current momentum is exciting, especially in the face of the “fear of change” that may be holding the state back from progress at the city level.
“There’s this real fear of creating more opportunity for other people, which is really sad,” said Distelhorst, a former Edmonds City Council member. “Our cities are not private country clubs. They should be welcoming and affordable.”
Volchkova agreed that multifamily housing options are absolutely necessary moving forward, along with more affordable housing units. She is also a fan of rent caps that offer tenants protection from year to year.
This month, however, two bills regarding rent hikes died in the state House of Representatives. The bills would have capped hikes and required landlords to provide at least six months’ notice for rent increases.
Trickler said this year’s push to cap rent increases may have spurred landlords to raise rent now, while they could, possibly contributing to recent rent hikes. He also asserted the state must offer incentives to build affordable housing.
It’s not easy or cheap to be a landlord these days, Trickler said. There’s the rising cost of building and maintaining properties, the amount of time it takes to obtain permits and the confusing legal red tape. All of that has made investing in new properties less enticing for developers.
“It’s not going to be a short-term fix. This problem has been building for years,” Trickler said. “But as long as they keep treating landlords or housing providers like the enemy, landlords and housing providers are going to continue to get out of the business.”
And when supply goes down, demand goes up.
“Competition for each unit is getting higher because there’s no vacancies for affordable housing,” Volchkova said. “And that’s why people with any other challenges, like past eviction (or) lower income, are getting screened out and not able to obtain housing or keep housing.”
House Bill 1337 aims to expand housing options “by easing the barriers to construction” and the use of ADUs. It passed in the House and is on to the Senate.
Distelhorst said what’s happening at the state is essential to avoid a “piecemeal” solution of laws that vary from city to city across the state. Housing, he said, “is something that is impacting all communities and all residents, so I think there is finally real statewide recognition and support to move in the right direction.”
Meanwhile, in Everett, Zack is offering a $100 finder’s fee for anyone who can find him a cheap and safe place to move so he doesn’t become homeless.
He wishes he could offer more.
Need help with housing?
There are resources available to people seeking housing assistance.
• Call 211, a hotline connecting people with health and human services in the community.
Other Snohomish County resources …
• Volunteers of America Western Washington: 425-259-3191, voaww.org
• The Housing Authority of Snohomish County: 425-290-8499, hasco.org
• Cocoon House: 425-259-5802, cocoonhouse.org
• Workforce Snohomish: 425-921-3423, workforcesnohomish.org
Kayla J. Dunn: 425-339-3449; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @KaylaJ_Dunn.