Housing crisis plagues Petaluma

Soaring rental costs, a lack of inventory and rising home prices are making it very difficult for people to stay, or find a home in Petaluma.

The City of Petaluma is looking to collect public input on present and future housing needs as it updates its "housing element," which outlines housing priorities, community resources and potential strategies to address those needs. But with rental housing availability at less than 1 percent, Petaluma's preeminent housing problem seems to be clear: there isn't enough of it.

"One of the things we are seeing is that for people who are losing their housing due to evictions or rent costs — there's no place for them to go," said Elece Hempel, executive director of Petaluma People Services Center. "We have such a low inventory of available housing units in this community."

PPSC promotes fair housing practices and runs a regional homelessness prevention program. Hempel said the center receives multiple calls every day from people who would be financially able to buy a home in most other communities.

"They can't even find a place to rent," she said. "People who are working very hard can't afford the rents in Sonoma County, or even in Petaluma, and there's just not a lot of available stock."

Many residents who call the center are living with three or four families in one house. Renters willing to pay $1,000 or more a month can't find anything available, said Hempel.

As a result, new "landlords" have entered the arena — people willing to rent or sublet rooms in their house.

Hempel said problems arise because these landlords aren't necessarily as educated as they should be when it comes to fair housing laws. They're making mistakes, she said, such as overlooking the importance of a lease and getting tangled up in legal quarrels.

"It's a scary environment right now if you're looking for a place to live in this area," Hempel said. "If we want to have a diverse community, how are we going to address the ability for people of all economic levels to be able to live in our town?"

The City of Petaluma has made some progress in affordable housing. Take Logan Place — a $25 million project consisting of apartments meant for families with an annual income of $17,000 to $45,000.

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