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Napa, Sonoma, Marin, Solano rents jump, burdening tenants, landlords

North Bay median rents

For one- and two-bedroom units

Marin County: $2,928

Sonoma County: $2167

Napa County: $2,198

Solano County: $2,151

Santa Rosa: $2,021

Petaluma: $2,527

Fairfield: $2,176

Source: Apartment List

Adding to increased tension between landlords and existing or prospective tenants, North Bay housing rental prices shot up in 2021, with some counties showing double-digit rises year over year, a San Francisco-based rent data research firm reported.

Among a sample of its 3,300 listings, the Apartment List concluded Marin County’s rent prices went up by 16.1% last month from a year before. Prices on listings for Sonoma and Napa counties rose 12.9% and 9.7%, respectively. Solano County followed, up 8%.

A few North Bay cities were singled out. The Sonoma County seat, Santa Rosa, showed a 12.6% listing increase, coinciding with the county’s rise. Petaluma was up by 14.5%, while Fairfield’s units cost 10.3% more.

The data reveals a trend in which shelter has become increasingly more expensive — whether the occupant holds a mortgage or a rental agreement. Another trend demonstrates how the pandemic has shifted residents from metropolitan cities to rural towns, especially if they can work remotely and seek more space, Apartment List Senior Research Associate Rob Warnock pointed out.

“The fact that we Americans live in a cultural society that we rent until we own means folks are not that wealthy enough to own and are becoming renters,” he said, adding the “pool of rentals” has lessened. The low inventory with increased interest in certain areas like the North Bay drives up demand. This, in turn, leads to prices going up.

“What’s interesting about the pandemic that we’ve seen is a widespread shift from urban to rural areas more so than in any other recession,” he said. “Typically, people move to lower cost areas because of the pandemic. But now they have the flexibility to move to places like Sonoma County.”

A year ago, the Sonoma County vacancy rates among the Apartment List rentals were 5.5%. Now it’s 2%, Warnock said.

Keith Becker, general manager of Dede Rentals & Property Management in Santa Rosa, said in some areas rising rents are only tempered by regulations.

A Sonoma County emergency ordinance enacted in 2017 bans increases over 10% for existing tenants as a consumer protection to devastating wildfires. New renters do not have the same protection.

Nearby, Napa County doesn’t have that ordinance in place.

Sometimes the impasse between landlord and tenant ends up in the courts.

With two tenants he’s managing owing more than $20,000 each in back rent, Becker cited one back rent case in which the property owner received a default judgment against a tenant in Sonoma County Superior Court.

“(The tenant) stopped paying rent in June 2021,” Becker said, adding eviction paperwork comes next. “We have to get the property back. That’s separate.”

The legal wrangling is time consuming and counterproductive to income property owners.

“It’s a very high bar. Each circumstance is unique to see. And certainly, there’s a certain amount of luck involved,” he said. “I feel it’s going to clog the courts.”

State legislation was put in place last October allowing for small-claims cases to be filed to collect unpaid rent due to COVID-19. Since then, a dozen small-claims cases have been filed related to rental debt brought on by the pandemic, Sonoma County Superior Court CEO Arlene Junior reported Feb. 1.

And like her counterpart said in Napa County Superior Court, Junior said it’s too soon to tell whether a flood of cases will clog the courts at this point.

Eviction-protection programs runs short of funds

In the meantime, the state-spawned Emergency Rental Assistance Program administered by most counties represents many tenants’ last hope. Property managers and owners file to receive the funds for tenants, who are protected from eviction until their cases are finalized.

Sonoma County reported 4,000 ERAP cases pending, with $16 million left in the program.

Nonprofit organizations are managing the ERAP programs for the counties. Some are overextended on funding requested.

Fair Housing of Napa Valley Executive Director Pablo Zatarain figured a $7 million shortfall between the amount of money received by the state and the $22 million requested. He’s hoping for another round of funding or “reallocated” dollars from counties not using what’s in their coffers.

“People are hanging on by a thread anyway,” he said. “Rent increases make them more vulnerable.”

All this is part of an ongoing, bigger discussion about housing in short supply.

Generation Housing of Sonoma County has surmised in its January 2022 housing report that 58,000 new housing units are needed by 2030. Granted, not all these units would mean single-family, stick-built homes. That number would involve multi-family complexes, tiny homes and motel conversions, among other creative-thinking outlets.

“It’s going to take all of the above. That’s the only way we’ll be able to get there. But it’s doable. With housing costs, there’s a direct relationship between supply and demand,” Executive Director Jen Klose said, further pointing out a lower inventory since out-of-town remote workers started moving in during the pandemic. “We didn’t have the spare housing to deal with this influx of demand.”

Susan Wood covers law, cannabis, production, tech, energy, transportation, agriculture as well as banking and finance. For 27 years, Susan has worked for a variety of publications including the North County Times, Tahoe Daily Tribune and Lake Tahoe News. Reach her at 530-545-8662 or susan.wood@busjrnl.com.

North Bay median rents

For one- and two-bedroom units

Marin County: $2,928

Sonoma County: $2167

Napa County: $2,198

Solano County: $2,151

Santa Rosa: $2,021

Petaluma: $2,527

Fairfield: $2,176

Source: Apartment List

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