Construction workers have yet to cover the particle-board exterior of a 52-unit apartment project in downtown Santa Rosa, but already the waiting list for the rental units has grown large enough to fill a building three times the size.
"The demand is intense," developer Hugh Futrell said of the 150-plus households that are seeking a home this fall in his five-story, affordable housing project at Humboldt and Seventh streets.
And it's going to get much worse for renters, Futrell said, if Sonoma County meets near-term projections for job growth.
The days of slow-rising rents are over, pushed up by low vacancy rates and a dearth of new construction in the county. Property managers said prospective renters are frustrated by the same challenges that first-time homebuyers encounter in today's tight housing market.
"It's brutal," said Keith Becker, owner of DeDe's Rentals in Santa Rosa, a company that oversees rental houses. "We are leaving many qualified applicants unsatisfied simply because there is such high demand."
The county's average apartment rent rose 6.9 percent in the last 12 months to $1,335, according to RealFacts, a Novato-based apartment market research firm. That was the third-biggest jump for the state's largest metro areas, behind only red-hot San Francisco, San Jose and Santa Barbara.
Nearly 98 percent of the county's rental units were occupied at the end of June, the second-highest occupancy rate among 24 metro areas. A year ago, the rate stood at 96.2 percent.
The rising rents and tight occupancy appear tied to a lack of new housing.
"There just hasn't been any development in Sonoma County," said RealFacts spokesman Nick Grotjahn.
The county hasn't added any market-rate rental units in three years, according to RealFacts. Only 71 such units have been built since the end of 2007.