‘Can’t afford to move, can’t afford to stay’: Spike in housing costs has many stuck

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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.

Note to readers: Modesto is facing a housing affordability and availability crisis. The Modesto Bee is investigating how renters and home buyers are making it work as the cost of living rises in Stanislaus County. Local journalism like this matters. And your support makes it possible. Subscribe by clicking here.

Four years ago, Elizabeth and her fiance were paying $650 a month for a studio apartment in a nice complex in Modesto.

The city’s housing shortage in the next few years pushed their rent to $1,050 per month. Facing another rental increase to $1,150, the parents, now with a newborn, searched for 10 months for a more affordable place and found a two-bedroom costing $850 a month in a less desirable neighborhood.

Soon after moving in, the heater went on the fritz, leaving the family in a cold apartment for a month. The apartment had bugs and a broken window. Mail was stolen from tenants.

Elizabeth said she hears gunshots in the neighborhood near Sunrise Avenue.

“It’s awful,” wrote Elizabeth, who asked that her last name be withheld. “My fiance works in emergency services (in the Bay Area) and unfortunately they don’t get paid what they should.”

The Modesto woman was among dozens of people who told their stories on a questionnaire for The Modesto Bee’s series on soaring housing costs. The average apartment rent has risen by 53 percent over five years, contributing to homelessness and a sense of despair among many residents.

Respondents told of searching for rental housing for six months or more, endless applications and credit checks, and rental costs that now consume half their income.

Living in a state gripped by a housing crisis, one Modesto native wrote that she “can’t afford to move, can’t afford to stay.”

Carie Howard of Ceres moved back home to care for her mother in January, and now that she’s ready to move out again, has been unable to secure a rental home for herself and 23-year-old son, a delivery driver. Last year, Howard and a roommate were paying $1,300 monthly for a home that would now cost upward of $1,700, she said.

Most homes in good neighborhoods are listed for $1,400 a month or higher, and when a house in her $1,200-a-month price range comes up on a safe street, many applicants are vying for the dwelling, she said.

“You have a minimum of 30 people applying,” said Howard, who is often paying for application fees and credit checks. “If I am applying for two to three houses a week, I can spend $200 to $300 a month.”

The social worker, who earns $40,000 a year, believes her $80,000 in student loans is a reason her applications are turned down. In dealing with property managers, $6,000 to $8,000 in college debt seems to be more tolerable for landlords, Howard said.

Steven Zagaris, vice president of Liberty Property Management, said there is a high demand for rental housing in Modesto and nearby cities. Aside from a lack of building in the past decade, wildfires and other environmental disasters have helped create an extreme housing shortage in much of California, Zagaris said.

The vacancy rate for Liberty’s inventory of rental housing is less than 1 percent, when 4 to 6 percent is more typical. Liberty has a few thousand residential properties.

“We see people renting who were (displaced) by the Paradise fire,” Zagaris said. “People displaced by environmental disasters will range all this way.”

He said the more desirable rental homes will attract a dozen or more applicants. But the company still sees one or two renters apply for less attractive listings.

Zagaris said Liberty and other property management firms use objective criteria to decide who is approved for rentals. The applicant’s rental history is considered, and applicants are expected to meet income and credit requirements within a threshold.

Since landlords can’t discriminate based on credit, a person with the top credit score is in the same boat as those with lower scores within the threshold.

When it comes to student-loan debt, the landlord looks at the whole issue, including the balance and whether payments are made on time, Zagaris said.

Elizabeth said day care would eat up most of her paycheck if she were to return to work to supplement the family’s income. She and her husband are considering their options for leaving the state., she said.

“It is just getting worse,” Elizabeth said. “We think maybe Illinois ... We feel like the quality of living in Modesto has gone downhill. I don’t want to raise my family here.”

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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.