rental

Housing the homeless is top of mind — justifiably, given the scope of the problem — and probably will be for the foreseeable future.

Housing H-2A guest farm workers — a major component of what drives the economy throughout the county — remains an important priority, as well.

But what about rental housing in the Yakima Valley? Where does that fit in the plans of elected officials and business leaders who sort out the needs of the greater community and how to address them?

Calling the shortage of rental units here a “dearth” may qualify as understatement; it’s more like a crisis — an ongoing one, at that. For years now, Yakima County’s vacancy rate for apartment units has been woefully low and, currently, it stands at 1.36 percent, well below the state’s overall rate of 4.3 percent, according to a newly-released study from the Washington Center for Real Estate Research at the University of Washington.

If there’s a bit of good news in the data showing the Valley near the lowest in unit availability in the state, it’s that Yakima’s numbers have risen over last year’s report. Then, the county had a vacancy rate of 0.8 percent, essentially meaning that renters struggled mightily to find a place to live. And if renters were lucky enough to snag an open dwelling, they were paying top dollar -- an average of $770 per month, almost a 28 percent jump from 2013 and way out of line with rates of inflation.

While the study’s data only counts apartments in developments with at least 20 units and not single-family home and duplex rentals, researchers estimate the shortage is similar in those areas, too. Unlike in, for instance, King County, which has enjoyed a building boom matching its population boom in recent years, Yakima has struggled to keep up with resident demand.

Local real estate observers say that, during the last recession (circa 2008), home and apartment construction nearly ground to a halt. Since then, movement has been geologic-period slow in cranking the earth-moving equipment back up.

So, what to do, besides hand-wringing and grousing?

The county and city, both cash-strapped and looking to curb spending, are unlikely to dangle monetary incentives for builders, but they could make it easier for developers to avoid the bureaucratic red tape in permitting involved. Officials could also encourage more in-fill development on empty parcels in the city of Yakima, but given last year’s citizen uprising over the 80-unit complex in West Yakima (which eventually was approved by the city and upheld in court but still subject to appeal), the commitment will take some political backbone.

It’s better, of course, for developers to carve out new projects on more available and open land free from potential NIMBYism. And early indications are, we’re seeing the barest of upticks in construction. Of the 265 housing starts in the city last year, only 51 were multi-family developments. (Most were single-family home building.)

City officials say Yakima needs a minimum of 300 housing starts per year to meet the housing need. In 2019, they might achieve it. Developer Brian Borton is adding another 168 units at the University Place Apartments and potentially 400 units in a new development, the West Valley Lodges, abutting the Westwood West Golf Course.

That will bring some relief, but neither complex lies in the heart of Yakima — University Place being in Terrace Heights and West Valley Lodges in far west Yakima. Real estate experts say they don’t expect any relief any time soon for people seeking to live in Yakima proper.

“When you look at it, there’s just not enough available land in town,” Sue Nelson, owner of Daybreak Property Management, told us. “With the cost of labor and materials, you aren’t going to see a lot of affordable units or places (charging) $1,000 and up on Naches Avenue. (Builders) want to put apartments in a perceived safer area.

“I can sympathize with people looking. There’s hardly anything to rent. It used to be that people would rent their houses because they had trouble selling, but now the real estate market has rebounded and there’s fewer homes for rent — hardly any.”

It’s easy to give a collective shrug and say, Well, that’s just the way the market is here. But for people who are couch surfing at a friend’s place — or doubling or tripling up renting rooms in existing units — in low vacancy areas from Yakima to Grandview, the status quo is not acceptable. Just as the city and county have made a concerted effort to build a permanent homeless shelter, so, too, do they need to turn their attention to what might be called the “under-housed” in our midst.

• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Bob Crider and Sam McManis