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Living in a two-bedroom at a budget motel is a step up from what Juan Lugo and wife and four sons have endured of late. Still, it wears harshly on them.

"Last night, my wife told me she's desperate," Lugo said last week with tears in his eyes. The Mexican immigrant couple and their American-born children have stayed in the motel room for three weeks.

Daily, Lugo searches for a rental house or apartment in or near Santa Rosa while taking whatever handyman, housecleaning or general-labor work he can find. And he prays for God's help.

Some local people appreciative of Lugo's diligence and touched by his ordeal have done what they can for him and his family. That aid has been substantial.

A spontaneous assistance drive launched prior to Christmas by employees of the real estate firm Terra Firma Global Partners and adopted by families at Cardinal Newman High School brought the Lugos clothing, furnishings and cash -#8212; including an anonymous $10,000 donation.

But Juan Lugo is largely on his own as he competes for a residence in Sonoma County's exceptionally tight and increasingly expensive rental market.

Last fall, his family lost an apartment in Santa Rosa. Lugo said they were put out by a manager who broke a promise to pay him for handyman work he performed around the complex.

Prior to occupying the motel room north of the Coddingtown Mall, Lugo slept for weeks in his pickup and his wife and sons crammed into a room in a relative's home.

It's no mystery why Lugo is having no luck finding a small house or apartment for the $1,300 or so he and Martha, who washes dishes at a restaurant, can afford to pay.

A Press Democrat story last week reported that Sonoma County's nearly 97 percent occupancy rate for apartments is the third-highest in the nation.

Compounding the pain for apartment-seekers was last year's 12.2 percent rise -#8212; to $1,438 -#8212; in the average monthly rent in the county. That increase was the largest in the 41 metropolitan areas tracked by RealFacs of Novato.

"It's pretty bad out there," said Lugo, who bears the emotional weight of knowing how miserable the motel situation is for his wife and their boys -#8212; John, 15; 13-year-old twins Anthony and Andy, and Juan Jr., 9.

His challenge is shared by many would-be renters in Sonoma County. The severe housing crunch is worse for those, like the Lugos, who have large families, are low-income and because of irregular work cannot document their expected future earnings.

"I've noticed a huge increase lately in people looking for rentals," said Linda Hedstrom, housing and economic development manager at California Human Development Corp. in Santa Rosa.

"Rentals just aren't being constructed fast enough for all the demand," she said.

Hedstrom's view of the rental market tells her that families such as the Lugos are being pinched hard by multiple factors: the extreme difficulty in arranging financing to build low-income housing; the surge of foreclosures that sent many former homeowners looking for rentals and the understandable desire by property owners to seize the opportunity created by current high demand to upgrade rentals and increase rents.

"There is a booming free-enterprise market" for rental homes and apartments, she said. "I don't blame the landlords."

At DeDe's Rentals in Santa Rosa, President Keith Becker said Sonoma County's rental market presents few options for a family of six that can afford to pay only about $1,300 a month.

"I manage 500 properties; right now I have six available for rent," Becker said. In recent months, he said, he has has about two dozen clients take their properties off the rental market and place them on sale to take advantage of a much improved real estate market.

With the rental inventory so low, he said, property managers are obligated to seize the opportunity to boost rents for the sake of the owners' investment return.

"All those factors really are putting a pressure on rents," Becker said.

Wanda Tapia, founder and director of Latino Service Providers Sonoma County, said the difficulty of finding low-cost housing often is made worse by a seeker's lack of familiarity with the services that assist families to locate and apply for what affordable rentals do exist.

"There are agencies out there that can help," Tapia said. Though there typically are waiting lists, the sooner a family learns of an affordable rental and applies, the sooner their name can rise to the top.

Juan Lugo said his search has led him to a property manager who is trying to get his family into an apartment, but so far nothing has come available.

He and Martha lived in Southern California for several years after he came to the U.S. illegally from Guadalajara 27 years ago. They know that one option is to leave Sonoma County for a more affordable area.

But despite his family's current desperation, Juan Lugo hopes that if they can get into an affordable rental and he can turn his full attention to work, they can make it in Santa Rosa.

"It's so nice here. I love it," he said. He and his family are feeling far differently about the motel.