When Hotel Petaluma's owner announced in February he would be transitioning the building from low-cost, monthly rentals to more expensive nightly rates and asked his current renters to leave, it sent many of the tenants on a frantic search for affordable housing in Petaluma.
They discovered that it's scarcely to be found.
While some moved in with family members or were fast-tracked into an affordable housing complex, others ended up in temporary housing at the Committee on the Shelterless.
About half of those who sought help through Sonoma County Fair Housing, a program run by Petaluma People Services Center, were forced to move out of town, according Melody Sea, a fair housing assistant at PPSC.
These tenants' stories highlight an underlying issue in Petaluma: the high cost of rentals is driving many working individuals and families out of town or into homeless shelters.
"You don't have to be down and out and poor for rent to be a factor here," said Mary Jo Wheeler, who moved out of Petaluma with her husband after their landlord prepared to raise rent by $80 a month.
Wheeler receives a disability check each month, while her husband works full time as staff assistant at a high school and earns about $35,000 a year. They didn't consider themselves a low-income couple, but when their landlord's rent increase put the cost of their two bedroom, one bath duplex at more than $1,400 per month plus utilities this year, they found the cost untenable.
The rent had been steadily increasing for years, she said, and finally it became too much. After a long search, they found a place half the size of their former apartment in Sebastopol, which costs them $1,250 a month.
"We're middle class, we're not down and out, but a huge amount was going to rent," Wheeler said.
The couple's story is not unusual in Petaluma, where a high demand for rentals brought on by people losing their homes during the recession and joining the rental market has combined with the general desirability of the area to create rents that many working individuals and families cannot afford.
Indeed, the Santa Rosa-Petaluma metro area ranked as the 13th least affordable place in California and the 24th least affordable nationwide according to a "housing opportunity" index created by the National Association of Homebuilders and Wells Fargo. The index, based on data from 2012, compares median earning potential in an area to cost of housing.
The disproportionately high prices mean that low-to-medium wage earners who make enough to be above the cutoff for much subsidized housing may still find themselves priced out of a market rate home.
For instance, those earning below 50 percent of the area's median income are eligible for a Section 8 housing subsidy, in which they receive a voucher to help pay for rent. But because demand is so high, most of the limited number of vouchers go to those earning below 30 percent, according to the Sonoma County Housing Authority. That leaves many people trapped in a space between not qualifying for housing assistance and being able to afford market rate rentals.
Many of the roughly 250 people who cycle through the Committee on the Shelterless's emergency shelter each year without finding permanent housing do so not because they're unemployed, but because they're simply not earning enough to meet the high cost of rent, according to Mike Johnson, chief operating officer at COTS.