In this series we bring you stories of Oregon’s “working poor,” — those who are living below 200 percent of the poverty line. For many families, housing eats up the biggest portion of limited budgets. In Central Oregon the rental market is especially challenging for low-income workers.
When Alaina Campos is overwhelmed, she has a habit of saying a single, breathy word: “Wow.”
Alaina Campos Says WowWow
That’s something the 32-year-old single mother and McDonald’s worker says in response to both the highs and the lows of her day. On the phone with an elementary school worker, trying to get her daughter enrolled even though the family has no address: “Really? Wow. So this school system is not very good. Wow.”
When Lexi, Campos’ 6-year-old, unexpectedly solves a difficult math problem from the back seat of the car: “Wow, baby, good job. That’s a hard one.”
While scrolling through Craigslist at the public library, looking at a house for rent: “Wow. Look at how nice that is. Wouldn’t that be cute to decorate for Christmas?”
Lately, most of Campos’ “wows” have been in response to yet another piece of bad news. She’s been living in one bedroom of an emergency shelter in Bend since June. The shelter only has enough beds for three of her children, so one of her four daughters has to stay with a friend. For a while, Lexi slept at a friend’s house. But she soon felt abandoned. So now, 14-year-old Alyssa stays with a friend.
“She’s older and she understands the situation,” said Campos.
Since it’s still summer, a typical day for Campos involves a two-hour bus commute, sometimes with an extra hour of walking to her job at McDonald’s; shuttling her 5, 6, and 7-year-old girls to day care; and long hours at the library scouring property management websites and Craigslist for a rental.
Campos has been searching for housing since April. The rental she was in was sold, so she spent a few months bouncing between friends’ houses with all four of her daughters in tow.
She’s submitted dozens of applications, and she tracks Craigslist like a hawk. She’s often the first caller to inquire when a property becomes available.
But a background check is quick to reveal her poor credit rating, and all of her applications so far have been rejected. Campos has had trouble with debts, including a student loan, a traffic citation, and unpaid utilities that mar her credit.
Current vacancy rates in Oregon metropolitan areas, according to the 2014 report from MultiFamily NW:
- Bend/Redmond: 1.06%
- Portland/Vancouver: 3.46%
- Eugene/Springfield: 4%
- Salem & vicinity: 6.45%
“I’ve got my hopes up a couple of times,” said Campos. “Nobody wants to give me a chance with bad credit.”
Central Oregon has the one of the tightest rental markets in the state, with a vacancy rate of less than 1.5 percent. In Bend proper, it’s even lower: 0.5 percent. That means that, of all the possible rental properties in the city, less than 1 percent of those houses and apartments are available.
With rentals in such high demand, property managers have little incentive to bring on tenants with any kind of black mark on their record — whether that mark is bad credit, a prior eviction or a criminal record.
“Landlords can be a little bit pickier in their screening guidelines. They’re less likely to make exceptions for past history,” said Kenny LaPoint with Housing Works, an agency that helps people find affordable housing.
On a recent day off, Campos made two appointments to view rentals. As she stepped inside the second one, her expression shows immediate disappointment. The living room is dark, and there’s a musty smell throughout. Half of the kitchen is consumed by a yellowed fridge that doesn’t seem to be working. The bedrooms are tiny, and Campos needs a lot of space for her children.
“Wow, this place is $1,150?” said Campos, under her breath, as she peeked out the back door that leads to a weedy backyard. “The one we looked at this morning was way nicer.”
Her two youngest daughters liked it. “Wow! This is awesome. I wish I had this,” said 6-year-old Lexi.
“I like the other one better,” said 7-year-old daughter Lily, loudly.
“Sh-sh-sh,” said Campos to Lexi, smiling at the rental agent. The woman asked Campos if she had any questions.
“No, I don’t think so,” said Campos.
She can’t afford to be picky. There’s a good chance that even if she wanted this place, or the one she looked at in the morning, she wouldn’t get it.
At first, Campos thought her rent subsidies would make her a more attractive applicant. She’s in a program to help homeless families with kids move toward self-sufficiency. NeighborImpact, a local nonprofit, will cover her rent for a year. The goal is that by the end of a year, she’ll be back on her feet and able to pay the rent herself.
But even with the guaranteed rent, she’s been rejected over and over again. Each $25 or $30 application fee is essentially money down the drain.
“They take our money for the apps even though they know we’re not going to get it,” Campos said about the the local property managers.
And she doesn’t have the cash to spare. She knows exactly how much she has in the bank: $156 that has to last a week and a half until payday. That’s for food, bus fare, gas for the car she borrows from a friend, and anything else that comes up. If she decides to apply for the rental with the broken fridge and the strange smell, she’ll have to deduct the application fee from that total.
Increasingly, low-income workers across the state are having a hard time meeting income requirements as rents go up. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Oregon is $846 per month. To afford the rent, a worker must earn $16.28 per hour and work full-time.
Campos earns minimum wage and works about 13 hours per week at McDonald’s. She’s asked for more hours, but since she can’t work nights without child care, her manager says she can’t schedule her for any more hours.
“I feel like I’m spending more in my bus passes than I’m making in my paycheck,” said Campos.
Her youngest daughters don’t really understand the hardship. But Campos worries about her oldest.
“Alyssa is 14 and I can’t get her school clothes or new shoes,” said Campos. “She’s going into high school. That’s embarrassing.”
In front of Alyssa, though, she puts up a brave front. On the first day of high school, Campos borrows her friend’s car so she can drop her oldest off at school. On the way, Campos and her daughter argue about Alyssa’s electives. Campos wants her to take dance, but Alyssa wants to do yearbook.
“But you’re good at dance,” said Campos. When Campos pushes her, Alyssa reveals why she doesn’t want dance: One of the students made fun of her because her family was homeless.
“Her friends all came up to me and surrounded me and said, ‘I’m so sorry,’” said Alyssa, imitating the mocking tone of the other students.
“About our living situation?” said Campos, her face hardening. “What’s the big deal?”
“The big deal is that, basically I let down my team,” said Alyssa, explaining that most of the dance team went to a summer camp. Campos couldn’t afford to send Alyssa.
Campos sighed. ”You can just tell them, ‘Yeah, you know what, we did have a situation but we’re doing great now. But thank you for caring, that’s so nice.’”
Campos keeps a tight reign on her daughter, in part because she wants her to take a different path than she did herself. “When I was 18, I was so sheltered. I just went out there and explored and then I got pregnant,” said Campos. “Now I have four kids and I’m a single mom.”
Only one of the two fathers pays child support, said Campos. “They don’t want to help out, and they don’t even want [the children],” she said. “So I do it alone.”
The following day, Campos is supposed to hear back about her application for a three-bedroom house. She expected another rejection, but was hopeful.
This particular rental felt almost perfect. The house is two stories, and she liked that all of the bedrooms are on the second floor — it felt safer to her. She decided to overlook the peeling exterior paint, the fact that there’s no backyard for the little girls, and the big Kool-aid stain on the carpet. If she didn’t get this place, she said she’d put in an application for the other house with the dingy smell.
But after her four-month search, she finally got good news.
“Your credit was really really bad,” the property manager told her. “But we’re gonna give you a chance.”
They can move in the following week, said the woman. Campos was overjoyed.
Alyssa will be able to walk to high school. Now that she has a permanent address, she can enroll the younger girls in school. And she can finally focus on her next goals, like finding a better job.
“I get to rest my head tonight,” said Campos. “I’ve always said that we’ll be fine if we’re all together, but this is a big help. I need to be stable. We’re all we have, just me and my girls.”