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PD Editorial: Santa Rosa, Sonoma County seek some ‘housing heroes’

Sonoma County’s steep rents can chew up a paycheck in no time.|

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

Sonoma County’s steep rents can chew up a paycheck in no time.

The median monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Sonoma County was $2,053 in August, according to the rental website Apartment List. That’s up 5.8% from one year ago and 18.3% since March 2020, the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

The rising cost contributes to homelessness, and beyond that it’s an unseen burden for residents struggling to keep a roof over their head.

At the current median, it takes a wage of about $39.40 an hour to keep rental expenditures below the recommended ceiling of 30% of gross income. For many local households, rent chews up more than half of their income.

These are teachers and medical technicians, retail clerks and tradespeople — essential workers whose income hasn’t kept up with the cost of living.

To ease the bite for struggling renters while ensuring a steady flow of income for local landlords, Sonoma County and Santa Rosa are looking for “housing heroes.”

Specifically, they’re urging landlords to take advantage of rental-assistance programs, including Housing Choice vouchers.

Housing Choice, more commonly known as Section 8, is a market-based approach adopted during the Nixon administration as an alternative to large-scale public housing projects — government-owned apartment towers often plagued by crime and squalor.

With a voucher, tenants pay 30% of their income while Uncle Sam shoulders the rest of market-rate rent for a single-family home or an apartment. Landlords are guaranteed on-time monthly payments from the government, and tenants can be evicted if they don’t pay their share.

Families stay for an average of six years, according to the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department, so the program can be a stable source of long-term income for participating landlords.

What’s the catch? Some landlords believe Housing Choice tenants aren’t reliable, and some complain about mandatory inspections of rental units. But tenants with vouchers are subject to the same screening as any other renter, and the Sonoma Community Development Commission and Santa Rosa Housing Authority say they will pay rent while any required repairs are completed — and may also help pay for those repairs.

Between them, the city and county control about 2,900 Housing Choice vouchers. With about 7,000 people on waiting lists, the first challenge is patience. Once someone receives a voucher, they have about six months to find a rental.

Right now, 300 people are hunting for homes, local housing officials told the editorial board. Last year, 150 vouchers expired before the holders could find a place to rent in Sonoma County.

When that happens, someone gets stuck paying more than they need to for housing, leaving less for other necessities.

Moreover, if enough vouchers go unused, HUD can reduce the local allotment in favor of communities where vouchers are more widely accepted. That would exacerbate Sonoma County’s housing crisis, with ripple effects for the local economy if people move elsewhere to find affordable homes.

In addition to Housing Choice vouchers, the city and county offer rental assistance for homeowners who let rooms to college students or seniors.

To match prospective landlords and tenants, they launched a webpage — sonomacounty.ca.gov/housing-heroes. Have a place to rent in Sonoma County’s tight housing market? You can be someone’s “housing hero.”

You can send letters to the editor to letters@pressdemocrat.com.

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

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