Spotlight on Housing: Sonoma housing crisis hits renters hardest

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Dozens of home rentals are available in Sonoma Valley at any given time, which would seem to contradict the refrain that there is a lack of housing in the region. It’s not the number of rentals on the market as much as it is the paucity of housing for those with low or restricted incomes, said housing professionals and those who assist the financially challenged.

“We currently manage 70 rental communities that house 10,000 people in Sonoma and Napa counties, which is amazing, except that there are 15,000 families on our wait list,” said Laurie Lynn Hogan, director of fundraising and communications for Burbank Housing.

Burbank Housing is a local nonprofit that builds and operates affordable housing units in the North Bay for people of limited and low incomes. In Sonoma Valley, the company owns and operates such apartment units as Cabernet Apartments, Firehouse Village, Oak Ridge, Sonoma Creek Senior Housing, Sonoma Valley Apartments, Springs Village and Village Green. Five of those properties have an open waitlist; two are closed.

Getting on the waitlist does not guarantee getting a unit.

“Because our housing is affordable there is a high demand. All of our properties have waitlists due to the demand,” said Annie McNeany, director of property management for Burbank. “Applicants can remain on our waitlists anywhere from three to nine years.”

Property management companies such as Sonoma Management, which listed 25 rental properties in a recent advertisement in the Index-Tribune, has properties that range from $1,100 a month for a one-bathroom studio apartment to a four-bedroom, three-bathroom estate for $5,800.

The smaller, lower-priced units don’t stay on the market long, said Jane Saravia, marketing administrator for Sonoma Management. But demand, she said, is from families who need more space.

On, the range of prices and square footage was varied. An 800-square-foot two-bedroom, one-bathroom unit on Donald Street rents for $2,400 with a deposit of $3,600, for example, and a 1,413-square foot three-bedroom, two-bath house on Chase Street rents for $3,500 per month.

Anthony Hakim, project coordinator for Sonoma County Economic Development Board, said that, according to the U.S. Census, median rent in the county is about $1,650 per month, and is “continuation of an increasing trend in rental prices.”

According to RentCafe, the average rent in Sonoma is $2,100 for an apartment size of 1,109 square feet.

Rent vs. income

For an individual working in Sonoma earning minimum wage of $12.50 per hour, being able to afford any of the aforementioned units is all but impossible. Using RentCafe’s rent affordability calculator and a minimum wage earner’s monthly gross income of $2,166, a worker can afford a monthly rent of $649, assuming there are no monthly debts such as a car payment or student loan.

The steep cost of renting in the Valley hits the low income and limited income renters hardest, said Vicki Schnurpfeil, coordinator and rent chair for FISH (Friends in Sonoma Helping).

“For three years we’ve watched the increases,” Schnurpfeil said. It started shortly after the 2017 Sonoma fires, she said.

FISH provides financial assistance to residents from Kenwood to Schellville, and demand for help is huge, Schnurpfeil said.

“The biggest increase didn’t go up $50, it went up $300. That’s really hard for working people to afford,” she said.

Last year FISH provided 308 families with rental assistance for a total of $188,000, which accounts for about three-fourths of the nonprofit organization’s total income. FISH, which provides food, clothing and other assistance, partners with La Luz Center, another nonprofit that supports economically disadvantaged families and individuals, for translation services and helps people fill out applications.

FISH is only able to help renters once per year due to high demand, Schnurpfeil said.

Patricia Gallindo, family services coordinator for La Luz, said affording rent in Sonoma Valley for La Luz clients is a “very serious problem.”

“The rents are so high compared to what people make,” Gallindo said.

Some of the people she and FISH help are vineyard workers, hospitality employees who work in hotels or restaurants – all low-income roles, and all support the wine and tourism economy of Sonoma Valley. They are also positions that may not have work every day or year-round; and power outages forced by PG&E in the fall hurt workers in the pocketbook when businesses were closed and didn’t need employees.

“In an economy driven significantly by tourism and hospitality, it is important that the employees in those sectors are able to afford to live within the communities where they work,” said Ethan Brown, director of business development for Sonoma County Economic Development Board. “Since the region is already feeling workforce constraints related to persistently low unemployment, the issue represents another challenge for businesses that seek to locate and grow here.”

High cost of living hits professionals, too. Ann Scarff, 74, has lived in Sonoma Valley since 1990 and worked as a dental hygienist earning $55 an hour. She retired in June because working even part-time was too physically demanding, she said. Armed with a master’s degree in health education, she has written books on her field and owned a house here.

There was a lot of “deferred maintenance” on the house and she couldn’t afford the improvements and the mortgage so decided to sell it. In June, 2019, she filled out an application for the recently completed Celestina Garden Apartments, but was not accepted in the first round. Celestina is the newest local affordable rental property owned and operated by MidPen Housing.

Her house sold in October and she rented it back at $3,000 per month until she could find something affordable in Sonoma.

“At $3,000, I considered that a steal,” Scarff said. “[But] I could only afford a month.” Desperate to find a place to live but unable to find anything locally, she started to make plans to move back to Michigan, where she was reared, and live in a family cottage. Then in November, she got the call from MidPen that something fell through with an approved renter and she could get in after all.

“I felt like I hit the lottery,” she said. She is paying $1,030 per month for a 540-square-foot apartment. But Celestina’s completion was a few months away.

“I was living with friends, and living out of my car. It’s been awful,” she said.

Effects of high rent

Gallindo and Schnurpfeil both said property owners from out of the local area are especially insensitive to the Valley’s rental needs. When FISH assists clients it is writing checks to property owners in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Santa Monica, they said.

There’s a big difference in how “a huge LLC in LA that owns property in Sonoma treats” a rental and renters compared to how a local landlord treats people, Gallindo said.

The out-of-town landlords are uncaring, she said. “They’re so detached.”

“If you are a day late, they’ll charge $50, $75 for a late fee,” she said.

Those landlords who live in the area “know how it works” here, Gallindo said.

The distant landlords also tend to kick out renters shortly after they buy a property under the guise that they need to “remodel” and when the property is re-opened for rent, the rent increases dramatically, she said.

“It’s an excuse to get higher rent. They’re making people leave” and increasing the rent, she said.

“We’re not talking $100 or $200 (increase), it’s more like $1,000 or more,” Gallindo said.

When people can’t afford their rent, they tend to cut out something else from their budget in order to keep a roof over their heads, she said. Oftentimes it is food of quality. Though FISH and other agencies give away free food, it’s not always enough and people end up purchasing what they can. Less expensive food is highly processed and lacks in nutrition.

Eating that way for lengthy periods of time leads to diabetes, weight and heart problems, she said.

A portion of the Latino community in Sonoma Valley finds itself in the low-income bracket, and some of them came to this area from Mexico for work in the agriculture field, Schnurpfeil said. They come here for the work, but don’t realize how expensive it is until they are actually living here, she said.

To make do, they will share homes with other family members.

“There’s this stigma that they’re all crammed into one apartment,” Gallindo said. “But do you know why?”

Families don’t want to live that way, she said, and they do it to get by, but it takes a toll.

“The children suffer. They have to share a bedroom, sometimes with their parents,” and maybe there is one bathroom shared with several other family members.

“It’s a stressor,” she said.

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