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.
During and after the recession that began in December 2007, rents stayed essentially flat here for three years. Property managers said utility and other costs were still rising, but landlords felt the economy was too shaky then to seek more from tenants.
But since 2010, the county's average apartment rent has risen nearly 13 percent, while the occupancy rate has outpaced the average growth for Northern California communities.
Now the outlook is for more rent increases because landlords are encountering such great demand, Grotjahn said.
"They aren't fearful that if they raise rents, they're gong to lose someone," he said.
The rental market comprises a sizable portion of the county's 180,000 houses, apartments and condominiums. Four in 10 housing units here are occupied by renters, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
In Santa Rosa, Pine Creek Properties and Goodwin Property Management together own or manage about 1,000 rental units in the county. Last week the managers had just 10 units that soon will become vacant, and all of them already are on track to be filled, said Pine Creek controller Patty Goodwin.
Pine Creek Properties, which are owned by longtime county developer Ken Martin, include the Coddingtown Mall Apartments on Range Avenue. The 230-unit complex, built three decades ago, doesn't have a single vacancy, said Goodwin, who runs the property management company with her husband Larry.
"We've really cut down on our advertising because we don't have anything to rent," she said.
At Alliance Property Management in Santa Rosa, President Jock McNeill manages about 675 rentals, both houses and small multi-unit properties. At the end of June, the company had just three vacancies, though the number since has risen slightly.