New report details Sonoma County renters’ woes

A new housing report shows Sonoma County rent increases far outpaced incomes between 2000-2015.|

A new report by state housing advocates quantifies the woes affecting Sonoma County’s rental market, including how far rents have outpaced incomes.

Sonoma County’s median renter saw wages decline 6 percent from 2000 to 2015, when adjusted for inflation, according to the California Housing Partnership. In the same period, the county’s median rent increased 16 percent.

The gap, derived from U.S. Census data, resulted in a net decline in overall purchasing power of $5,580 for the median renter, whose annual income was $49,921.

The report also highlights an 87 percent decline in state and federal aid for affordable housing in the county during the past seven years, totaling $41 million.

Sonoma County’s decline was the steepest on a percentage basis among the 15 counties studied by the housing partnership, said its president and CEO, Matt Schwartz.

The county continues to lose ground each year when it comes to providing affordable housing, Schwartz said. His group estimated more than 17,000 more subsidized units are needed here to meet the needs of low-income residents.

Without action, he said, “this deficit is going to get worse.”

Those involved in the report acknowledged they hope county residents will be moved to take action to obtain more affordable housing, perhaps even voting for a new housing tax as a dozen California communities have recently approved. Among the housing measures approved last year, said Schwartz, was a $950 million bond program in Santa Clara County and a $580 million bond program in Alameda County.

The housing partnership was created by the state Legislature in 1988 to be an advocate for affordable housing. The group prepared the report in cooperation with the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California.

In recent years, business, civic and elected leaders increasingly have voiced concern about how the county’s shortage of rental and owner-occupied housing is affecting families and the economy. Debate has led to renewed government efforts to prompt more home construction and an attempt in Santa Rosa to implement rent control, with city voters now casting mail-in ballots on such a measure slated for a June 6 vote.

Hannah Scott, director of community engagement at nonprofit housing builder Burbank Housing, said she was excited Schwartz’s group decided to make the county one of four in the Bay Area studied this spring along with Alameda, Contra Costa and San Mateo counties.

Scott said demand for housing is so strong here that if Burbank’s entire portfolio of 2,900 rental units were vacated, “we could fill that tomorrow with our wait list.”

At any time, families representing between 7,000 and 10,000 people are waiting for one of Burbank’s apartments.

Alina Harway, communications director for the Non-Profit Housing Association, said getting more affordable homes built will rely in part on state intervention, either through potential legislation or a state bond in order to make more funds available.

“The No. 1 thing the state can do is reinvest in communities,” she said.

County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who has called for new efforts to build all types of housing, noted that a major source of money was lost here when the state took away redevelopment funds used for housing and other purposes by local jurisdictions. The report calculates that change resulted in a $14.8 million decline for affordable housing in the county in the past seven years.

As for a local tax, Zane said she would wait to see “whether voters want to go there.” But she noted residents already have been asked to support county measures for roads, libraries and other needs, and “I think they’re weary of some of the taxes.”

Among other things, the new report calculates the county’s median asking rent in April at $2,285 a month for a two-bedroom rental. The authors came up with that number after a UC Berkeley researcher was permitted to capture prices for all the rental units - including houses and apartments - published on the Craigslist website April 27.

Schwartz maintained the method used the most comprehensive data available, and a median rent gives residents a better picture than an average rent. Real estate reports often similarly report median rather than average sales.

Comparing the report’s median rent is difficult now that a key source on county rents, the data firm Real Answers, closed its doors this winter. The Press Democrat had published the Real Answers data for years.

Scott Gerber, a real estate broker who has been tracking North Bay rents for two decades, questioned the report’s use of Craigslist rents, calling it “a poor and flawed method.” In contrast, twice a year he directly contacts county apartment complexes totaling more than 11,000 units.

His own study released this month reported the average asking rent for a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment unit in the county at $2,108.

Gerber, managing director of Bradley Commercial in San Rafael, nonetheless noted that housing construction in the county has not kept pace with population growth and the need exists to build both affordable and market-rate homes.

Among the county’s rentals advertised Monday on Craigslist was a two-bedroom, one-and-a-half bath apartment in the 72-unit Brookside East complex off Yulupa Avenue in Santa Rosa. It is the sole unit currently available for rent at the complex and is being offered for $1,700 a month, owner Beth Martinez said.

“What we do need is more rentals,” Martinez said.

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or ?On Twitter @rdigit.

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