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Applicants camp out for chance to rent apartment in Santa Rosa

Tanya Chretien camped out two straight nights in a line of people that stretched down a Santa Rosa sidewalk Wednesday morning, hoping to snare an apartment with subsidized rents in a new complex under construction in southeast Santa Rosa.

In all, 175 people lined up this week on West College Avenue seeking one of the 42 units that will become available this spring at the Tierra Springs Apartments. Some who succeed may end up paying less than half the rent they would be charged at a market-rate apartment in Sonoma County.

For housing experts and apartment seekers, the long lines demonstrated once again the strong demand for affordable housing in Sonoma County and the difficulty of obtaining a place that offers below-market rents.

“A lot of people are in need of a home,” said Chretien, who lined up at 3:30 p.m. Monday for a chance to rent one of the apartments. “They spend years waiting and it’s only gotten worse.”

While would-be home buyers sometimes lined up in the heyday of the housing bubble a decade ago, the idea of renters queuing overnight was for many a new occurrence.

“I haven’t seen anything like this,” said the city Housing Authority’s Nancy Gornowicz, who has worked on housing matters for 20 years. She noted that it’s been more than a year since the last affordable rental project was built in the city.

Tierra Springs will open at a time when business leaders, elected officials and housing advocates all are calling for the construction of more housing units. They warn that as residential building has declined and rents have sharply increased, the county is finding it increasingly hard to house a growing workforce, especially those filling lower-wage jobs.

“We have reached the point where action is imperative,” said Santa Rosa Mayor John Sawyer.

Sawyer, who will attend a workshop on affordable housing next month with local elected officials and builders, said new housing is needed of “every type and for every income level.”

Tierra Springs is located at Petaluma Hill and Kawana Springs roads. However, its applicants lined up this week on West College Avenue at the Terracina at Santa Rosa Apartments. Both complexes are owned by USA Properties Fund of Roseville.

On Tuesday, about 75 people filed applications or were placed on a waiting list for 11 two-bedroom apartments, said Valerie Benkie, community manager for USA Properties in Santa Rosa. On Wednesday, another 100 signed up for the remaining one- and three bedrooms.

All were done on a first-come, first-served basis.

Those that don’t obtain an apartment for the May opening can have a chance to apply for a second complex of 24 one- and two-bedroom apartments that are slated to be ready in August. The second complex is located near the county fairgrounds.

The rents for Tierra Springs are set on a sliding scale based upon income, which can be no more than 60 percent of the county’s median, or up to $49,560 for a family of four. Such a family would pay a maximum of $1,240 a month for a three-bedroom unit.

In contrast, the county’s average apartment rent in December was $1,567, according to Novato-based rent research firm Real Answers.

Rents have climbed nearly 30 percent in three years, and last year the county ranked fifth for the nation’s biggest rent hikes. At year’s end, 97.2 percent of the county’s apartments were occupied, a level that property managers consider essentially the same as full occupancy.

And two new “luxury” apartment projects in Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park, are pricing their three-bedroom units at $2,400 to $2,675. Those are the first market-rate units built in the county for about four years.

Those waiting near the front of the line on Tuesday afternoon expressed both a weariness with the search for housing and a hope that they might at last secure a home.

“It would be the first place we could call home since we lost our house,” said Cindy Mossmayer.

Mossmayer lost her house in the Central Valley to foreclosure in 2011. She now works with special needs students for the Sonoma County Office of Education and is seeking a place for her daughter and herself. Obtaining a unit at Tierra Springs would bring “peace of mind,” she said.

Nearby, David Modesto said he had been waiting in line since 9 p.m. Monday because he needs to find a larger place for his family. His wife and he are expecting a second child and their landlords have said they can’t continue to rent their current one-bedroom apartment.

But a market-rate unit could easily cost the family $400 a month more than Tierra Springs and unable to save anything. “It leaves me no disposable income at all,” he said.

USA Properties Fund spokesman Ron Trujillo said the company was “blown away by the response” of those who waited in line. They had not seen people stand in line so long for any other recent projects, including one in San Jose.

Even so, demand has been high for years for affordable units in the county, according to officials for the nonprofit Burbank Housing in Santa Rosa.

When the organization held a lottery for a 66-unit complex in Petaluma in 2013, more than 1,000 people applied.

Even now, Burbank Housing has a waiting list of 7,500 applicants, but has less than 400 vacant units to offer them each year. In one typical complex, three families have been waiting for an opening for more than five years.

“There’s an enormous amount of demand,” said Chuck Cornell, executive director at Burbank.

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit.

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