Looking for an affordable apartment in Modesto? It might be harder than you think

These are some of the issues behind California’s housing crisis

California's housing crisis is due in large part to a lack of supply, particularly when it comes to affordable housing, and it is hitting low-income individuals the hardest.
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California's housing crisis is due in large part to a lack of supply, particularly when it comes to affordable housing, and it is hitting low-income individuals the hardest.

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Housing in Stanislaus County

Investigating how renters and homebuyers are making it work as the cost of living rises in Stanislaus County.

What is the status of the apartment rental market in Modesto?

Mark Galvan, a case manager who assists tenants with fair housing issues, did not see a reason to mince words.

“It is terrible,” said Galvan of Project Sentinel’s Stanislaus County Mediation Center. “There are not enough rentals out there.”

According to RentCafe, the average rental cost for apartments in Modesto is $1,205 a month, a 4 percent increase over last year. The average monthly rent for apartments has steadily risen each year from $788 in late 2013, more than a $400 increase in 5 1/2 years.

Almost 80 percent of renters at Modesto’s larger apartment complexes (50 units or more) are charged between $1,000 and $1,500 monthly for apartments, many of which provide 800 square feet of living space or less. Only 15 percent of those apartment rents are in the $700-to-$1,000 range, considered more affordable for people with average incomes in Stanislaus County.

According to Census data, almost half of 30,880 rent payers here spend 35 percent or more of their income on housing.

The Modesto market is certainly more affordable than the Bay Area, one reason apartment seekers in Modesto compete with some long-distance commuters from over the hill.

Debbie Croneis, assistant manager at The Marina apartment complex in east Modesto, said apartments are quickly snatched up when they become available, which usually happens when a tenant decides to move.

“Usually when we get a notice (from a renter), the apartment is rented if not the same day, then within a couple of days for sure,” Croneis said.

Croneis said she has the same apartment shoppers calling her every day to ask for any available units. On Wednesday, The Marina had a one-bedroom apartment costing $1,165 a month. It was available for a lucky tenant in late August. The Marina also listed a two-bedroom available in early September.

Two-bedroom apartments can be hard to find in the local market. Stoneybrook apartments on Rumble Road has not had a two-bedroom available since December.

“We stay pretty full,” said Adrianna Duran, manager of the 166-unit Stoneybrook. “We have a lot of residents who renew with us and they just like to stay.”

Stonebridge on Braden Avenue put up signs and banners last week to promote available apartments at the complex east of Vintage Faire Mall, where the amenities include a pool, clubhouse, playground and courtesy patrol. The one-bedroom floor plans at Stonebridge were offered from $1305 to $1,350 a month, according to a price sheet, and two-bedroom were $1,491 to $1,551 a month.

The availability of eight or nine dwellings at one complex followed a recent rental increase. Security deposits are $500 to $700. Pet owners pay an extra $35 a month on top of a $500 pet deposit.

Commuting from Bay Area

Some tenants at apartment centers in Modesto have grappled with elevated housing prices in a region stretching from the Bay Area inland to the Northern San Joaquin Valley. Some of them rise early in the morning for that grueling commute over the Altamont.

“We charge $1,165 for a one-bedroom, and a one-bedroom in the Bay Area is $1,800 to $2,000,” Croneis said. “People think they can do the commute but they don’t really know what they are up against. I told one person you have to make this drive at commute hours. He said, ‘I know but I can’t find anything I can afford in a different area.”

Several renters at The Marina work at Tesla in Fremont.

Croneis also said she’s noticed an increase in seniors selling their home and downsizing to an apartment. “As people get older, the home needs more work and it costs more money to maintain,” Cronies said. “If you are on a fixed income, that does not always work in your budget.”

Last week, Stoneybrook apartments on Rumble Road listed a pair of one-bedroom apartments for $1,275 and $1,305 a month for prospective tenants willing to wait until August or September to move in.

Duran said Stoneybrook residents hold onto their dwellings in this tight market. About 90 percent of renters renew their lease when the previous one expires, she said.

Lease renewals are one reason apartments appear on listings. When the 9- to 12-month lease expires, landlords may base the renewal rate on market value and the increase prompts some tenants to look for another place. Owners are required to give 60 days notice for a rental increase of more than 10 percent or 30 days for an increase less than 10 percent.

People applying for apartments are expected to meet income eligibility criteria, often by showing their income is 2.5 times the monthly rent, or they could be rejected.. Local managers said an income criteria of three times rent is common in Modesto and it’s said to be four times the rental cost in the Bay Area.

Galvan said property owners can legally set the eligibility criteria as long as it applies to everyone regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation.

Getting approval is difficult in the current market for anyone who has a prior eviction or lack of rental history. “It is not a very friendly environment lately,” Galvan said.

New renters may be charged an initial deposit based on a credit check or employment verification. The standard deposit at one complex was $250 for a studio, $350 for a one-bedroom and $450 for a two-bedroom but the deposits were more costly for those with lower credit scores.

The steep costs for rental housing make it less common to require payment of first and last month’s rent. Many people looking for apartments don’t have $3,000 to $4,000 to spend on upfront costs.

Less costly options in Modesto

Those who don’t qualify or can’t afford the nicer apartment communities in Modesto are forced into less desirable housing. For some paying below-average rents, the choices may include older apartment buildings, a studio or tiny house in a sketchy neighborhood, Galvan said.

“People are renting from mom and pop landlords who are managing places that are old and dilapidated,” Galvan said. “The plumbing is bad. The roof leaks. ... Some landlords are deciding they can rent out something that is not up to code.”

For older tenants on fixed incomes, rental increases can be perilous. Seniors on Social Security might still have a sweetheart deal on a $400- to $500-a-month apartment, but adapting to a $100 to $200 increase is virtually impossible, Galvan noted.

CalMatters, in a 2017 piece citing the California Coalition for Rural Housing, reported that more than 60 percent of very low-income renters in Stanislaus County spend more than half their income on housing.

Analysts say the economy suffers when a large swath of consumers spends a hefty percentage of their paychecks on housing. It leaves people with less money to spend on food, cars, entertainment and other goods.

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Ken Carlson covers county government and health care for The Modesto Bee. His coverage of public health, medicine, consumer health issues and the business of health care has appeared in The Bee for 15 years.