Stanislaus seniors are forced out by crushing rents. Is rent control the answer?

More from the series

Housing in Stanislaus County

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

Renting an apartment without assistance is now virtually impossible for Modesto seniors like Carol Gilbert, whose income is less than $1,000 a month.

The monthly rent for her one-bedroom was $650 when she moved into Stardust Villa Apartments about 10 years ago. Following gradual increases, the rent jumped from $950 last year to $1,300 per month.

Gilbert was notified that a public housing program capping her share of the rent at $198 was no longer funded, which put her on a desperate search for any housing she could afford on her fixed income of $874 a month.

She was so upset and afraid that her doctor prescribed an antidepressant medication for her. “I am 73 years old,” Gilbert said. “I don’t know how to be homeless.”

Seniors with limited incomes are among the most vulnerable people in the housing crisis gripping Stanislaus County, as property owners increase rents based on the current market.

Some seniors who have depended on sweetheart deals to rent dwellings for around $400 a month are devastated when new landlords double the rent or tack on $200 to $300.

“I think the second wave of homelessness is coming and it will be older people,” said Mark Galvan, a landlord-tenant case manager for the Project Sentinel fair housing program in Stanislaus County.

Affordable housing complexes for low-income seniors have waiting lists of one or two years. Some retirees forced out of their homes by higher rents find that Section 8 vouchers are not being issued, and those with vouchers can’t find a property owner that participates in the federal program.

A state bill to limit annual rent increases to 5 percent is on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk. It would exempt apartments built in the last 15 years and homes not owned by real estate companies, and it won’t do anything to reverse the staggering rental increases of the past few years.

The search for housing is challenging for people in their late 60s, 70s or 80s, especially if they don’t have family members to assist them. When a senior needs to move from an old house filled with their belongings, who is going to help them move?

“The sheer challenge of finding a place, packing and moving is difficult,” Galvan said. “Some of the people I hear from have outlived their family.”

Seniors seek help

Agencies that assist seniors receive an increasing number of calls from older people looking for housing.

Jill Erickson, a manager for county Aging & Veterans Services, said a senior information line has received 310 calls since January — about 37 calls per month — from people seeking affordable housing, requesting help with deposits or asking about other housing-related issues.

“Every month we have people who are losing their housing,” Erickson said. Those callers are provided with a list of senior housing complexes or room-and-board homes that rent to seniors, but there’s no guarantee housing is available.

From February to late August, about 40 adults age 62 or older stayed at least temporarily in the Modesto Outdoor Emergency Shelter (MOES), the shelter’s director said.

Erica Fernandez said she wonders why her independent living facility in Turlock is on the county’s senior housing list, since she has not had a vacant room in three months and the last opening was filled within a week. Hospitals and medical rehab facilities also call the 14-room facility to try to place patients who are about to be released.

The Turlock facility called Effective Real Estate Solutions, a former assisted-living center, rents rooms at $500 to $575 per month for adults who can care for themselves. The current tenants are 30 to 70 years old, and the last opening occurred when a resident failed to follow the rules, Fernandez said.

“Because a lot of elderly folks have limited income, unless they qualify for Section 8 or subsidized housing, they won’t be able to get a one bedroom or a studio” in the community, Fernandez said. “My place is always full. Even though I’m full, I always get calls.”

Paula Holley, 60, of Modesto said a previous landlord charged $500 monthly for the house she rents on Beverly Drive. But the property was sold and the new owner is raising the rent to $900 per month and plans an increase to $1,200 before too long, she said.

Holley, who’s in the Section 8 program and is battling cancer, expects her rental obligation will be almost $400 a month, leaving her with $500 in disability income for daily expenses. “Five hundred is not much to live on,” Holley said.

Her 84-year-old father wanders around town during the daytime, after his house in west Modesto burned down. He pops into Paula’s house at night. With rents continually on the rise, the family isn’t sure what he can afford on his $1,100 monthly Social Security check.

Landlord disheartened

Katherine Setliff, a landlord in Riverbank, said she’s disheartened by the lack of affordable housing in the county. Setliff said she has not raised the rent on tenants in five rental homes, even though the rent is well below market, but the tenants struggle to make it each month and can’t get Section 8 assistance because the vouchers are exhausted.

“It truly angers me that landlords keep upping the rent out of greed for the most part,” Setliff wrote in an email. “I understand if the property were recently purchased then a return on investment might require a rental increase, but for the sake of more money, I can’t get on board.”

The housing shortage is expected to create challenges for a wave of retirees in California in the upcoming decade. According to a Public Policy Institute of California study released in 2015, the 65-and-older population will increase by 4 million by 2030, stressing public services for seniors.

With the surge of retirements, a larger percentage of older state residents are expected to be single and without adult children for providing family support, the study said.

It doesn’t appear the housing shortage has registered as a priority for city leaders in Modesto. And it might remain a neglected issue as the city and the county devote countless hours and millions of dollars to trying to solve the crisis of homelessness.

Those who pay attention to the housing crisis warn it has the potential for putting more people onto the streets.

Modesto Councilwoman Jenny Kenoyer said she recognized a need for affordable housing for seniors, but she’s not heard the housing shortage is a top priority for the city.

“Right now, we are concentrating on getting everyone in MOES moved to emergency shelters,” Kenoyer said. “We can’t overload ourselves.”

Terry Withrow, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, said, “There is definitely a housing crisis, especially on people with fixed income.”

Withrow said one solution is construction of more housing across the spectrum, including low-income projects, apartments and duplexes and homes on the free market. Withrow took the more conservative view with rent control, saying it could stunt projects by limiting the profits that can be made from construction.

Gilbert, the woman who has desperately searched for housing, said she made 300 calls to local agencies and landlords after the rent for her Stardust Villa apartment jumped to $1,300.

According to the manager, the monthly rent for one-bedroom apartments at Stardust, near Carver Road and Briggsmore Avenue, was increased because the previous rates of $950 were far below the market. In July, the average monthly rent for apartments in Modesto was $1,223.

Anavel Hernandez said the increases occurred when she took over as manager last year. She said the complex, which was bordered by empty parking spaces during the daytime hours last week, is 98 percent full. A large percentage of tenants are commuters, including traveler nurses, bank employees, even real estate brokers.

“The property was way under market,” Hernandez said, adding that the rental increases help pay for costly maintenance of landscaping and other features.

Gilbert said, by miracle, her personal housing crisis was resolved when a neighbor spotted an online listing for a room in a mobile home costing $350 a month. Gilbert, who was born in 1945 and remembers firsthand the 1960s “American Graffiti” cruise scene in Modesto, said a room renting for $350 a month is almost impossible to find today.

“If not for that room, I would be going to the Gospel Mission on Oct. 1,” Gilbert said.

She said she gave away most of her furniture because she can’t take it with her to the mobile home.

The Stanislaus County senior information line is 209-558-8698 or 800-510-2020.

Follow more of our reporting on Housing Issues, Affordability & More in Modesto

See all 9 stories