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In Columbia County, rent rates mirror bigger cities

Per capita wages lower, but fair market rate rent in same ballpark as Portland's


Columbia County is considered a rural area, but its rental market isn’t far off from that of its urban neighbor.

Data from the Department for Housing and Urban Development indicate renters in the county are paying prices similar to those in Portland.

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - A sign advertises rental units in Scappoose. Across Columbia County, residents who earn a median income spend roughly half of it on housing. While Columbia County by most accounts is not considered a Portland suburb — it is not a part of Tri-Met transit or the Metro regional planning government districts — it is lumped in with the metro area by HUD.

Housing costs may be similar between Columbia County and Multnomah County, but incomes and wages are not.

Columbia County’s median household income in 2014 was $54,605. The county’s per capita income was $26,316, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

By comparison, Multnomah County’s median household income was $52,845 in 2014, with per capita income at $31,047.

Fair market rental rates published by HUD show a sharp spike in prices between 2015 and 2016.

Fair market rent amounts are gross rent estimates used by HUD to determine payment standards for its housing assistance programs. Currently, fair market rent for a one bedroom unit in Multnomah, Washington and Columbia counties is $1,021. Just last year, it was $793. In 2012, $771 was considered fair market rent.

That means workers making an average individual income in Columbia County now spend about half of their pay on housing.

Columbia County may be bundled with the Portland metro area for housing, but it’s still outside the city’s urban growth boundary. A statewide minimum wage increase set to take effect this July puts Columbia county at a lower pay schedule than other areas in the metro category. The county’s minimum wage is set to increase to $12 by 2020, and will reach $13.50 by 2023.

The sudden change in rent prices have been felt across the Portland metro area.

Jim Tierney is the executive director of Community Action Team of Columbia, Clatsop and Tillamook counties. He suspects the housing market is still feeling the aftermath of the economic recession.

The market is fueled by demand, Tierney observes, noting the housing crisis in Portland, the state’s largest city, isn’t unique.

“Around the state, it’s the same narrative,” Tierney said. “When Portland gets a cold, we get pneumonia. I think you can blame a lot of this on the financial crisis, because we’re still recovering from that. We stopped building. We had all kinds of foreclosures ... some of those units were taken out of the market.”

Housing availability in Columbia County is low.Apartments.com shows only one apartment complex with availability. Similarly, classified ads reflect scarce availability in St. Helens. That doesn’t bode well for a county that is largely comprised of commuters.

In 2015, CAT helped 117 people with rental payments or eviction prevention. That same year, it helped 67 residents pay for deposits on rental housing, but those numbers are still less than the 200 people the agency had to turn away for assistance.

“Most of the time when we are having to turn people down, it’s because they don’t have the ability to sustain themselves, or we just don’t have funding,” Martha Olmstead, a housing assistance coordinator with CAT, explained. “When people live in a unit that is $1,000 a month and their income is only $700, we can’t help them.”