Economics of homelessness: Portland renters walk a precarious road

Spiking rents, low wages and a cutthroat market means thousands of renters in the metro area are at risk of becoming homeless.

When Heather Starr graduated with her associate’s degree in applied science and became a certified paralegal, she didn’t imagine she would become homeless.

But that’s exactly what happened to the 35-year-old mother of four. Starr works as a legal assistant and moonlights as a bartender, has $3,000 in savings, and has been living out of her red Pontiac Grand Am since May, when her landlords sold the home she was staying in and she couldn’t find another apartment to rent.

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Heather Starr in Woodland, Washington. 

Her kids are staying with her ex-husband so they can remain in the Hockinson School District in Brush Prairie.

Every night, Starr searches for safe a place to park her car and sleep for a few hours. Every day, she scours the internet for rentals.

“I never, ever saw myself in this position,” she said and laughed in disbelief. “Not even close.”

Even though she had a decent income and savings, she couldn’t afford most of the market-rate apartments anywhere close to her downtown Vancouver office. And the ones she could afford all turned her away. She didn’t meet the lofty income and credit requirements set by landlords and property management companies.

In the Portland metro area, there’s a growing divide between what people make and what living here costs. That reality is creating a booming new class of residents: The working homeless.