Lack of housing forces residents to look beyond Corvallis

With two days left to find a house and rejections from 11 apartment complexes, a Corvallis couple found themselves on the verge of losing their chance for a stable home.

Kenneth Wiggington, 46, and his wife, Christian, 24, struggled with drug addiction and homelessness. Kenneth Wiggington had a criminal history. The state had taken custody of their young daughter.

That was a wake-up call, Kenneth Wiggington said. The couple entered a substance abuse treatment program, then found space in a shelter with strict sobriety and conduct requirements.

They found work and eventually qualified for government-issued vouchers that would cover part of their rent — if they could find a place to live within 120 days. Desperate to take control of their life and win back custody of their daughter, the couple began looking for a home. But with each application costing $35 to $50, time and money started running low.

In Corvallis, a small city that’s home to one of Oregon’s largest universities, the housing supply isn’t keeping up with its growing population, leaving many without a place to call home. Rising rents have forced residents and newcomers to other areas.

Only 5.8 percent of rental homes are available, according to U.S. Census data from 2015. Some local housing advocates say the vacancy rate is even lower.

“I’m not proud of the idea of the little housing Corvallis offers,” said Ty Pos, director of social services at Community Outreach Inc. The housing nonprofit helps people regain their footing and find a home.

At the same time, the cost of homes is climbing. The Corvallis area’s Fair Market Rent, a measure of rental rates set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to determine the amount of housing subsidies, climbed to $930 for a two-bedroom apartment in 2017, up 18 percent from 2010.

The housing shortage goes beyond Corvallis and even Oregon, said Tracy Oulman, Corvallis’ housing and neighborhoods coordinator. Income throughout the country isn’t keeping up with home costs, she said.

It’s not just renters like the Wiggingtons, with major blemishes on their records, who are having trouble finding a house.

As finance director at Community Outreach Inc., Lydia Cline, 48, keeps the books for an organization that helps house people.

Yet every day, she drives for two hours to get to work from her home in Winston.

Even though she applied to rent 20 homes in Corvallis and nearby cities, paying fees every time, she never landed a lease.

Cline’s large family of eight made her search even harder, she said, because few available rentals are big enough.

“It’s tough,” Cline said. “They have a waiting list. They are very competitive.”

Oregon State University’s flagship Corvallis campus, and its sizable student body, plays a major role in the availability of rental housing.

For the last 10 years, the population of the university has increased substantially, said Kent Weiss, the city’s housing and neighborhood services division manager.

The university has found rental housing prices have also displaced its own employees.

“Our staff has to look beyond Corvallis for affordable housing,” said Dan Larson, the school’s interim dean of student life.

Students often share rentals with roommates, dividing the cost among themselves. Dejane Oliver, 22, and a fifth-year student at Oregon State, moved in with friends. Living with her two roommates, she had to pay only $291 for her monthly rent.

Buddying up helps students afford higher rents and compete with long-time residents and families.

Larson said the school will add 300 beds for upperclassmen, potentially easing the demand for off-campus housing.

The Corvallis city government has also taken steps to address the rising housing costs, said Weiss, the city housing official. But it’s seen little development, slowed further by a short supply of land.

“We’re struggling a little bit in terms of the supply in Corvallis,” Weiss said. “Our rate of development hasn’t really kept up.”

The city formed a housing development task force, and since 2015, Corvallis has collected a construction excise tax to fund the construction of affordable housing.

For the Wiggingtons, a last-minute availability provided them the home they needed. Late last month, the couple moved into a two-bedroom townhouse.

They’ve regained custody of their daughter and filled one of the rooms with decorations from Disney’s “Frozen.”

“This is our home now,” Kenneth Wiggington said. “She knows she’s coming home.”

— Mekdes Hilete, Jefferson High School
— Ben Nguyen, Reynolds High School