Although Sonoma County apartment rents have stabilized, they're still too high for many families
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Esquieres, a student at Sonoma State University studying business and marketing, said one of the apartments was outdated but listed at almost the $2,200 a month that he, his mother and father are now paying.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.”