Ben Hernandez and his family have spent the past five weeks in hotels, unable to find a place to rent after wildfires destroyed more than 5,000 homes in Sonoma County, including their three-bedroom tract house in northwest Santa Rosa.
“It’s looking more and more like we might have to stay with relatives,” said Hernandez, who works in maintenance and construction. His homeowners insurance is paying for the hotels, he said, but the company “is only going to give you so much housing money” toward a future when the family can rebuild in Coffey Park.
County renters, property managers and housing advocates say the October wildfires grabbed hold of a constrained rental market and squeezed it by the throat.
“It was bad before the fire,” said Keith Becker, general manager and broker for DeDe’s Rentals in Santa Rosa, which had 14 rental properties destroyed. “This has only made it worse. And it’s made it worse on so many different levels.”
Some who lost rental homes to fire said they are now paying substantially more for new places. Housing advocates said tenants in existing rentals also are reporting rent increases. Other renters told advocates they have received notices to vacate their current units, perhaps to make room for those able to pay more money.
Many fear the destruction of so much housing in affluent and middle-class neighborhoods could cause a chain reaction that eventually forces significant numbers of workers and their families from the county. Housing advocates maintain those with little means will be the most vulnerable.
“We’re extremely worried that we’re going to have a second wave of displacement,” said Ronit Rubinoff, executive director of Legal Aid of Sonoma County. “We know the folks at the bottom of the market get pushed out first.”
Sonoma County last month suffered the most damaging wildfires in U.S. history. The fires killed 23 people here and caused nearly $3 billion in property damage, including 5,130 homes destroyed.
Local and federal officials have yet to report what portion of the burned-out families were renters. What is known is that 4 in 10 county households overall were renting in 2015, according to U.S. Census data.
County Supervisor James Gore told Coffey Park neighbors at a meeting Tuesday that only 3 in 10 burned-out renters had insurance to cover their losses. That means the vast majority of the affected renters must rely on federal disaster aid for such items as temporary housing, a program that has been extended an extra four weeks to Dec. 7.
Santa Rosa apartment rents have risen 6 percent in the past year, with the average two-bedroom unit priced at $1,910, according to rent tracking website Apartment List. That compares with average increases of 4.3 percent for California and 2.7 for the nation.
The city’s vacancy rate for 2016, the most recent available, was 2.3 percent, “which is basically zero,” said senior research associate Sydney Bennet.
Bennet said it likely will take another month for the company’s estimates to show the fire’s effects on rents. She predicted rents will continue to rise, partly because the fire resulted in more high-income renters entering the market with the ability to pay more to find temporary housing.
Real estate website Zillow earlier reported a 36 percent jump in county median rents after the fire in a seven-day period ending Oct. 18. For Santa Rosa, the median rent increased 16 percent.