Renters feel the squeeze, too

Although Christy Carr, a single mom with three kids, struggles to save enough money to pay the $1,000 rent at her apartment each month, she still dreams of buying her own home.

“I would love to buy a house someday,” Carr said. “Everything I make goes into the rent. You can’t save up a down payment when you’re paying rent.”

More and more people are renting these days because there simply aren’t enough affordable houses to buy in Chico. But just as housing prices are going up, rental prices are going up, too, driven by a historic shortage of apartments and the growing number of renters.

Options do exist for low-income renters, but they are difficult to come by.

The problem with affordable housing is that the supply is not keeping pace with the demand, said Jean Ross, director of the nonprofit California Budget Project, in Sacramento, who worked on the report “Locked Out 2004: California’s Affordable Housing Crisis.”

More people in California are looking for affordable housing, so a balance is needed between available apartments and rent prices. In general, fewer people can afford to buy homes, so more are looking at rentals, she said.

It wasn’t always profitable to build apartments in Chico. The 1990s were a slow period for housing nationally. In 1994 and 1996, Chico’s university enrollment decreased, and mortgage rates went down.

“It was not a favorable climate to build in,” said Dennis McLaughlin, the city’s housing officer. Only 200 apartments were built in a decade, even though Chico’s population increased by many thousands. “It’s been a little bit of a dry spell.”

Apart from the Esplanade House, a program that serves homeless families, the last time affordable apartments were built in Chico was in 1995, when the Community Housing Improvement Program constructed the Campbell Commons apartments on Flume Street, said Dave Ferrier, the agency’s director.

Builders are trying to play catch-up to the lack of apartments. A lot of building is going on in Chico, and builders are competing for funding and spending more money, McLaughlin said. “We have a very hot commercial market.”

That means more rentals, but rather than building affordable apartments, developers are putting up more-expensive luxury apartments, such as the Sterling Oaks apartments off Bruce Road, because they are more profitable.

Some help is on the way.

Next year two housing projects will most likely be completed, providing 150 to 160 affordable apartments. One of them is the senior housing complex on Park Avenue, a three-story structure with 107 apartments. Because seniors are part of the target group, the Butte County Housing Authority will assist tenants with the rent.

One-third of Chico’s renting households pay more than half their income to rent, making them the ultimate target group for assistance and affordable-housing projects. The projects enable people to pay a reasonable amount of their income to rent, said McLaughlin.

People with assistance pay the rent standard, 30 percent of their annual income, thanks to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s housing choice vouchers, known formally as Section 8, which subsidize the remaining costs up to fair-market value.

But just because people qualify for Section 8 assistance doesn’t mean they’ll get the help they need. “The Housing Authority has a tremendously long waiting list, like three years,” McLaughlin said.

A statewide funding mechanism is needed to provide affordable housing, he added.

There’s simply not enough affordable housing in Chico, said Tami Ritter, executive director of the Chico Community Shelter Partnership in Chico.

Ritter thinks a mandate from the City Council is needed to make a percentage of the new buildings specifically for low-income renters. Affordable housing is a community responsibility, and the nonprofit agencies can’t do it by themselves, she said.

“We have so many people that are without housing,” Ritter said. “We need to do something.”