When new teachers began arriving over the summer to begin their jobs in the Hermiston School District, some with families were confronted with a dilemma:

A shortage of what property management companies call mid-level to upper-level house rentals.

“Some teachers we hired had trouble finding places to live,” said interim Superintendent Wade Smith. “It’s really not something we’d experienced before.”

Smith also noticed something in the district’s enrollment that he hadn’t noticed before: a large exodus of students to nearby communities.

When enrollment figures were compiled this year, district officials found that nearly 150 students who attended Hermiston schools last year had left for nearby districts, including 49 to Umatilla, 39 to the Tri-Cities and 27 to Irrigon.

Smith attributes at least some of those moves to families unable to find suitable rental properties in Hermiston.

According to local property management companies, it’s not his imagination. Tina Renshaw of Accent Properties said houses are being rented almost as soon as they come on the market.

“I had a four-bedroom that came out in the paper last week,” Renshaw said. “I had 30 phone calls on it before noon. I had people calling on it from as far away as Michigan.

“We’re renting houses almost before the paperwork is done to get them on the market.”

Renshaw said there are a variety of reasons behind the shortage of inventory.

One is that banks have tightened lending standards, forcing more people to rent.

Another, Renshaw said, is the rise in foreclosures.

“People have lost their houses, but they aren’t moving out of the area,” she said. “They still have jobs and family here, and they have to have a place to live. So, they’re renting — and if they can’t find a place here, they’re moving close by to stay near their jobs.”

Randy Randall of Preferred Properties said rental inventory is definitely down. And he noted, “with the uncertainty with the economy, no one is ready to begin investing in new rental units right now.”

Kathy Brazeau, director of student services for the Hermiston School District, said she’s noticed the shortage while registering students.

“We just registered a student from out of state the other day after his dad found a job in the area,” she said. “They had been looking for a place to rent, and it took them a long time. When they finally found one, they rented it sight unseen. There just really seems to be a shortage of good rental property.”

That hasn’t always been the case in Hermiston. According to Renshaw, Hermiston had a “building boom” in the early 2000s that put plenty of houses on the rental market.

“Back then, you’d see some rentals sit empty for five or six months,” Renshaw said.

But that’s not the case today. While houses for sale sit on the market for months, rentals are being snapped up right away. Fewer people qualified to buy means more people who must rent. And while apartment rentals also seem to be relatively scarce, single-family dwellings — particularly those on the upper end of the market — are extremely hard to find.

“We had three houses that were on the market for sale for a year and they never moved,” Renshaw said. “When the owners decided to rent them, they were taken in a couple of days. To be honest, I don’t see that changing anytime soon. We don’t know how long it will be before the banks start to ease up on lending again — or if they ever will.”

Some of the area’s larger employers have taken steps to mitigate the problem. Good Shepherd Medical Center, for instance, recently constructed an apartment complex to make sure new employees had a place to live when they moved here. But even there, the maximum time for rental is six months.

And, a recent change in Oregon law is catching some property managers by surprise. According to Renshaw, if a tenant has been in a rental for one year and one day, a 60-day notice for removal is now required. The old law required only 30 days.

“There have been some horror stories of people who finally sold a house they’d been renting to someone and then had the sale fall through because they didn’t know about the 60-day notice,” Renshaw said.

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