MERCED For the past eight years, the Belmontes family has rented in Merced.
Paul Belmontes would like to own a house for his wife and three kids, but without a job, that isn't going to happen anytime soon, however cheap houses are in Merced.
"I would love to buy a house," he said.
It turns out the Belmontes are the norm, rather than the exception, in Merced.
Although housing prices are at an all-time low, most people who live in the city of Merced, nearly 60 percent, are renters. That's compared with a national average of almost half as many, according to the 2006-08 American Community Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau.
In nearby Modesto and Madera, where poverty, joblessness and the foreclosure crisis also have hit hard, the number of people living in their own homes is higher than in Merced.
Few people have answers for why this is the case, but many speculate that a lack of well-paying jobs is the main culprit.
Whatever the cause, the higher than usual number of renters high even before the real estate boom boosted housing costs to record levels is creating a tight rental market. Many foreclosed homes go unsold for long periods of time, and people who have lost their homes are now renting.
In addition, an ever- growing student body at the University of California at Merced contributed to an already high number of renters in Merced.
Of Merced's 23,600 occupied units, only 9,545 were owner-occupied, compared with 14,055 occupied by renters, according to the Census Bureau's survey. That's nearly 60 percent occupied by renters and 40 percent by homeowners.
The nationwide percentage of owner-occupied homes in those same years was 67 percent.
All the blame can't be laid at the feet of the foreclosure crisis.
In 2000, before the housing boom priced out many people or threw many former homeowners into the rental market, 46 percent of homes in Merced were owner-occupied.
Nearby cities with similar issues have lower rental rates.
In Madera, according to the latest data, the ratio of renters to owners was roughly 50-50. In Modesto, 67 percent of all housing units were occupied by owners.
Masoud Niroumand, housing manager for the city of Merced, said the shortage of homeowners in Merced is probably a result of the local economy. There just aren't enough good-paying jobs for people to buy houses, no matter how cheap they are, he said.
But from what he's seen, other forces are at work as well.
Even some of the people who can afford houses are being pushed out by investors.
During the past nine months, Niroumand's office, which has a down- payment assistance program, has seen only a few of the 80 people eligible for their program get houses.
Additionally, a lot of people who can afford to buy don't have good credit, or aren't being qualified for home loans.
And many say the rents in Merced are going anywhere but down. The number of rentals isn't increasing either.
Kathy Hoffman, a property manager with Gonella Realty, said the influx of students this year was especially large.
"At one point, we had almost every house that we had available spoken for," she said.
Nonstudents who want to buy homes in Merced said they'd buy if their credit were better or if they could find well-paying jobs.
Jeremy Choffel, a 29-year-old cook, said he would love to buy a house, especially with such low prices right now. But his credit just isn't good enough.
"I pay $1,150 a month (in rent) I could get a house for that, man," he said.
Choffel said he doesn't expect there to be an increase in homeowners in Merced until there are more jobs here. "No jobs," he said, means more renters.