Oregon and Southwest Washington are in the midst of a housing crisis. Over the last few years, the Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro metro area has been flooded with out-of-state movers. Market forces, including limited housing supply and stagnant wages, are making it hard for people to secure safe and affordable homes. Demand is so high, at the end of 2015 only 2.4% of rentals were vacant, and many people struggling to make ends meet were pushed out of their homes. Cities and community organizations endeavor to enact solutions to this problem. In Vancouver, a community has come together to build power and take concrete steps toward keeping people housed.
[Image description: Three people dressed in red sit at a table facing Vancouver's City Council. The city councilors are seated at a long, semicircular desk, with each person's name on a plaque mounted in front of them.]
At the end of 2014, Courtyard Village, an apartment complex in Vancouver’s Rose Village neighborhood, which is known for housing people from vulnerable communities, was sold to a new owner. Tenants in the 151-unit complex began receiving 20-day notices to vacate. Families, singles, couples and seniors found themselves facing a housing crisis during the holiday season.
Also at the end of 2014, twenty-six Southwest Washington residents participated in Healthy Living Collaborative of Southwest Washington’s first Community Health Worker training program. Before even graduating the program, these community leaders made a huge impact in the lives of the people evicted from Rose Village, and they’ve continued to make an impact on the entire community through their advocacy for affordable housing.
When the 20-day notices to vacate were issued, many of Courtyard Village’s tenants didn’t even know the apartment complex had been sold. The Community Health Workers in training, some of whom lived in the Rose Village neighborhood, pulled together with Washington Elementary School and the Council for the Homeless to educate tenants about what was happening and connect them to resources. This included a community meeting where they learned about assistance finding housing, paying moving costs and support being offered by a neighboring church (Vancouver First United Methodist). It also included Community Health Workers going door to door to make sure every tenant, including those who had chronic conditions and no means of transportation, received the information they needed. Thanks to these efforts, 101 of the 151 Courtyard Village households contacted partners for assistance. The community stepped up with fundraising, too. The Vancouver community raised $102,000 to help households pay expenses associated with moving. There was a “fun run” and donations from individuals and businesses. In addition, many congregations held special offerings. This community-driven assistance helped 76 of the 101 households, including 89 children, secure new homes.
After responding to the Courtyard Village crisis and graduating from their training program in February 2015, the Community Health Workers were determined to prevent similar situations from happening again in the future. That meant policy change.
On September 14, 2015, Community Health Workers, Rose Village residents and others testified at a City of Vancouver hearing about a proposal for renter protections. Community Health Worker Dominique Horn testified as a Rose Village community member and Courtyard Village neighbor: “It doesn’t just affect them. It affects the whole community. It affects the school. It affects my children. It affects everyone. And there is nowhere for them to go.”
[Image description: Screenshot of a woman speaking into a microphone, people seated behind her. A caption at the bottom of the screen reads "Vancouver City Council, 9/14/15."]
After the hearing, Vancouver’s City Council approved three ordinances protecting vulnerable renters: one requiring landlords who wish to raise a tenant’s rent by ten percent or more to give a 45-day written notice of rent increase, one requiring landlords who own five or more rental units to give at least 60-days notice to vacate, and one preventing landlords from refusing to rent to a tenant based on a tenant’s source of income. This was a huge win for Community Health Workers, Rose Village tenants and the Vancouver community as a whole, but it still didn’t solve the problem of the lack of affordable housing.
That brings us to this week. Once again, on June 20, 2016, Vancouver residents packed the City Council Chambers, many of them wearing red. They wore red to show their support for an affordable housing levy. At a rate of 36 cents per $1,000 assessed property value, the levy would generate $6 million annually for seven years to be put toward low-income rental housing and homelessness prevention. Thanks to the turnout and testimony, City Council voted to add the levy to the November ballot.
[Image description: Two women stand in front of a room full of people seated at tables covered with purple tablecloths. One of the women holds a large check. More people stand in front of a wall draped in purple and red.]
Policy measure by policy measure, Healthy Living Collaborative of Southwest Washington and its many partners work toward keeping community members in their homes. With 501(c)4 funding from Northwest Health Foundation's Healthy Beginnings+Healthy Communities initiative, Healthy Living Collaborative and its partners will be able to contribute dollars to a political campaign for the first time this year: the non-partisan campaign Bring Vancouver Home. They will continue to advocate for families and children in Southwest Washington to keep them housed and healthy.
Healthy Living Collaborative of Southwest Washington is the lead organization for Healthy Communities, Healthy Futures, a Healthy Beginnings+Healthy Communities Collaborative.