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Priced out of Petaluma

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.

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