Although Sonoma County apartment rents have stabilized, they’re still too high for many families

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Cesar Esquieres, 25, and his parents went apartment hunting last week, hoping to find a nice two-bedroom unit for about $200 less than the rent they’re paying for an apartment community in southeast Santa Rosa.

Esquieres, a student at Sonoma State University studying business and marketing, said one of the apartments was outdated but listed at almost the $2,200 a month that he, his mother and father are now paying. Two-bedroom apartments they visited at a newer complex in west Santa Rosa were priced higher.

“In a perfect world, I would love to get a less expensive, two-bed going for $2,000 minimum,” he said. “But that’s not possible in this area.”

Property managers say apartment rents in Sonoma County have stopped the dramatic monthly increases that followed the October 2017 wildfires and subsequent housing market upheaval. There are even areas where rents have begun to decline.

Like countless other working-class households in the North Bay, the Esquieres family is thankful rents have stabilized, yet the monthly cost of renting a home continues to be a severe financial burden. The average monthly rents in the county last fall were $1,780 for a one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment, $1,940 for a two-bedroom, one-bathroom unit and $2,258 for a two-bedroom, two-bathroom unit, according to Scott Gerber, managing director of Meridian Commercial Property Management in San Rafael.

Half of the county’s roughly 73,000 renting households pay more than one-third of their gross monthly income on rent, according to the latest U.S. Census estimates. And for many county residents, 50 percent or more of their monthly income goes to pay rent.

Gerber, who surveys more than 18,000 rental units in Marin and Sonoma twice a year, said monthly apartment rents are now stable and, in some cases, declining because there’s been pushback from renters.

In Sonoma County, as of October, he said rents had increased by 4 percent from a year ago and vacancies were about 4 percent. Over the winter, the rental market got “really soft” and rents at the high end started flattening out and declining, he said.

“Two years ago, no one was decreasing rents,” Gerber said. “We had a little dip in the winter.”

That dip could be a signal the apartment rental market “has peaked and is stabilizing” to the point in which inventory is approaching a 5 percent vacancy rate, he said. He predicted monthly rents countywide would increase 2 to 3 percent and vacancy rates to “bounce around 4 to 5 percent,” a sign the housing shortage appears to be easing somewhat.

Property managers say the price increases at the upper end of the rental market are declining in the second year after the fires. It’s the lower end of the market in which increases still are occurring.

Construction of new units also has helped to stabilize the apartment rental market.

Gerber’s recent data show that 871 new apartments have been built in Sonoma County, with another 1,734 units either approved or proposed as local cities and towns continue to streamline their building approval processes to help resolve the local housing affordability crisis.

“You’re going to be seeing significantly more availability than you did 12 months ago,” he said. “I’m not characterizing it as a renter’s market, but it’s more of a renter’s market than it has been in five years.”

Meanwhile, the reasons for the “dip” in rents depends on whom you ask. One reason, cited by county officials, property managers and rental property experts alike is people are leaving the county for more affordable communities.

“Some people are just leaving … even though the rent hasn’t gone up it’s still too high,” said Margaret Van Vliet, executive director of the Sonoma County Community Development Commission. Van Vliet said a common “benchmark” for monthly rent is to pay no more than 30 percent of your income, although that figure is 50 percent of income for more than 18,000 local renting households, according to census figures.

“We do know that low-income people are pretty mobile, likely looking for work in other places,” she said. “If you’re paying more than 50 percent, you’re probably moving a lot.”

According to the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, 41 percent of county households pay 30 percent or more of their income for housing, either in rent or a mortgage — the highest share of the nine counties in the Bay Area.

After the 2017 wildfires, which in Santa Rosa alone wiped out 5 percent, or more than 3,000, of the city’s homes, the demand for rental property greatly increased. Meanwhile, many families who lost homes in the fires entered the rental market with home insurance to pay for temporary housing. That influx of money and demand boosted apartment prices, experts say.

Fortunately, it appears rents have reached a breaking point.

“Nothing can go up forever,” said Patrick Kallerman, research director at the economic institute. “Folks are already doing everything they can in the Bay Area to pay for the high cost of housing.”

Ronit Rubinoff, executive director of Legal Aid of Sonoma County, said pricey apartment rents have led to greater housing instability in the North Bay. Rubinoff’s organization assists some 700 households a year on a range of issues, including providing assistance to those living in uninhabitable homes, providing help to those seeking federally subsidized housing, price gouging and, of course, evictions.

Rubinoff said her organization isn’t seeing an increase in tenant evictions, but other tactics aimed at getting around the state’s price-gouging rule for areas affected by natural disasters. Landlords can only raise monthly rents up to 10 percent a year. She said some landlords are charging people for sewer, water and garbage, often between $150 to $300 a month, as a way to increase rent.

Rubinoff said her organization has been able to recoup $120,000 in such fees for tenants it represents.

In a perfect world, Esquieres, the Sonoma State student, could get his own apartment close to campus. He has a job in marketing while trying to complete his business degree. Although apartment rent increases have subsided, having an apartment of his own isn’t possible.

“Right now, I don’t think I could afford to live by myself,” he said. “I would still need to be living with roommates.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or On Twitter @pressreno.

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