For those looking to rent in the Mother Lode, especially at an affordable price, finding a place may seem close to impossible.
There are less than 10 rental units currently available in Calaveras County, which is the norm, according to Property Manager for Century 21 Sierra and Wildwood Properties Alison Daniels.
“We have so many inquiries on daily basis,” Daniels told the Enterprise. “The phone rings all day long, every day. The majority are looking in the $1,200 range, and we don’t have any options for them.”
Daniels and other property managers in the area have experienced so much demand that they’ve had to abandon their customer database systems and show homes in groups, with most rental units flying off the market within days of being listed.
Out of the six rentals Daniels manages in Calaveras County, only one is vacant – a three-bedroom, two-bathroom home in Arnold with a steep driveway for $1,200 per month. According to Daniels, houses become cheaper above the snowline where transportation is an issue.
In more desirable areas like Greenhorn Creek in Angels Camp, a three-bedroom can cost well above $1,800. In Murphys, a “charming” two-bedroom loft may cost over $1,900.
“For a run-of-the-mill house, you’re looking at about $1,650,” Daniels said.
Shannon Kent, Realtor and owner of Step Up Property Management in Calaveras and Tuolumne, said the average price of a two-bedroom in either county is in the $1,000 to $1,100 range.
That price is significantly lower than in some California cities, with San Francisco the priciest at a median of $4,730 for a two-bedroom in 2016, according to Apartment List. A similar unit in Anaheim costs $1,740, and in Bakersfield, it’s $840. However, all three cities were listed within the top 10 most expensive statewide.
“We have a lot of people looking, and the availability out there is really slim, which pushes prices up,” said Century 21 Sierra and Wildwood Properties Office Manager Jesse Gibbs regarding Calaveras County. “We have a great need for more rentals.”
For a single person earning minimum wage, the options are even slimmer.
“It is kind of crazy, I think, that rooms for rent are becoming much more popular because people can’t afford to live by themselves,” said Kandi Thompson, broker and owner of Divine Properties, which serves Amador County and other parts of the Mother Lode.
“We have absolutely no availability for apartments,” Daniels confirmed.
According to Kelli Coane, director at the Resource Connection, those hoping to get into a unit in an apartment complex may have to spend six months or more on an extensive waiting list.
And it seems the competitive nature of the market has created an ideal climate for scammers: “There’s always people who take advantage. For some, they don’t think of it that way – they’re providing that place for someone to live,” said Coane, who once encountered a woman who was paying $300 per month to live in a camper shell supported by cinder blocks.
Thompson added that those desperate to find a home often fall victim to online scams – particularly on Craigslist, a web-based classified listing. Scammers post listed homes on the site at extremely low prices, asking the renter to send a check, sight unseen.
“I’ve had people thinking they were on the phone with the owner trying to climb through a tenant’s window,” she said. “It’s really, really bad. I’ve had people move in, starting to deliver stuff to one of our homes without ever having talked to us.”
Thompson warns renters that it should be a red flag if owners refuse to show their property or claim they live outside of the area.
A ‘perfect storm’
The Butte Fire in 2015, which destroyed 549 homes in Amador and Calaveras counties, is often cited when discussing the rent crisis in the Mother Lode, in addition to the Camp Fire in late November, which has sent an unknown number of families looking for housing in the area.
However, Thompson observed an increased shortage in rentals roughly a year before the Butte Fire when the housing market began to recover from the recession. Homeowners who had been looking to sell for years but were instead forced to rent were finally able to put their units on the market, and many renters had their homes sold from underneath them.
Displaced families were an added burden to the already strained availability, she said.
Daniels agreed that fire victims, fire recovery and tree mortality workers arriving in the area created more competition, as her usual clientele is families with kids and new hires. Most of the temporary workers have since left, opening up spaces, she said, though it hasn’t been enough to keep renters at bay.
Thompson said that Divine Properties experienced an increase in calls from owners wanting to rent out their units about three months ago, when the rental market in Amador went into a “standstill.”
“It’s probably the same in Calaveras,” she said. “It’s still not a ton compared to what has been lost.”
No quick fix
“Affordable housing is one of our greatest obstacles. Not just for low-income people but for working people as well,” Calaveras County District 2 Supervisor Jack Garamendi told the Enterprise. “It’s a challenge across rural America, and we’re taking it on through our statewide organizations.”
Garamendi added that he believes the problem is “acute” within his district, which encompasses Mokelumne Hill, West Point and Mountain Ranch, due to the aftermath of the Butte Fire.
“I wish I had a solution,” he said. “One of the challenges is the cost of construction paired with the limited incomes in our community. Until those lines intersect, we won’t get increased inventory.”
Calaveras County Planning Director Peter Maurer echoed the sentiment that it doesn’t “pencil out” financially for developers to build affordable housing units in the area, though the Planning Commission tried to provide sufficient land for housing options in the new general plan, which has yet to be released.
The commission will also be looking into vacation rentals and how they affect the market for residents, he added.
“It’s really not the county’s role in constructing housing, but rather try to provide incentives for (the) building industry to construct a range of housing,” Maurer said. “(The problem) is exacerbated in rural areas where cost of construction is high compared to rent or sales price.”
According to Maurer, there have been no recent developments within the county geared toward affordable housing.
Another issue that may be keeping availability low is the lack of lucrativity for homeowners when it comes to renting out a unit.
“A misconception with renters is that landlords jack up the rent all the time,” Daniels said. “A lot of the time, they don’t make their mortgage. … The market has been down the last six months. We’ve seen price reductions.”
“Tenant-landlord laws are crazier in California than anywhere else in the country,” said Thompson, who as a broker is all too familiar with the the 47-page rental agreements both parties are required to complete. “The laws deter owners from even renting out their properties – the laws are made for tenants, not owners.”
Thompson added that landlords who are not well-versed in law could be in for a “very expensive lesson” if a situation with a tenant goes south.
Finding a place
Despite all the difficulties a renter may experience during the home search, there are still a select few who are working to make the process less discouraging.
Owners of Big Horn Mobile Home Park in Angels Camp, Steve and Angela Wagner, are currently in the process of adding eight new single-wide mobile homes to their facility, available for rent or rent-to-own in the spring.
“We know there’s a rental crisis going on here, so we thought what better way to help the community and upgrade our park?” Angela Wagner told the Enterprise.
Another helpful hand was offered at Big Horn when a mobile home owner agreed to rent out their unit to a couple who lost their home in Paradise.
“It’s been a blessing for us. (The process) went really smoothly and quickly,” said Christine Mulgrew, who hopes to plant roots in Calaveras with her husband, Patrick. “We were looking around but didn’t find anything until my in-laws found this place.”
Meanwhile, local property managers are developing new ways to connect renters with available homes and offering insider tips to make the overall process easier.
Thompson started a Facebook page in recent years called Amador/Calaveras Rentals – a “one-stop shop” for property managers, owners and people looking to rent.
“A lot of property managers make it their sole source of advertising,” Thompson said. “You can rent out a property there within a day.”
Other tips offered by Daniels are to check local property management websites for listings rather than bigger sites like Trulia. The local sites are more up-to-date, she said.
Daniels also recommends calling your local property managers on a weekly basis.
Regarding financial assistance, there are resources available for low-income individuals – particularly those who have been affected by crimes like domestic violence.
Over the past two years, the Resource Connection’s Rapid Rehousing Program provided rental assistance for over 20 qualifying individuals and families. Coane said a single person earning minimum wage would qualify for the program, but the issue was finding a place to rent once the individual was accepted.
The Rapid Rehousing grant expired in December, but Coane said the Resource Connection has been approved for another $200,000 federal grant that should be available early next year.
“It’s a substantial amount of money we can use to help people with deposits or rental assistance,” Coane said. “Ideally, we want to find a couple units we can rent and move people in and out.”
In the meantime, Coane recommends reaching out to the Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency and Sierra HOPE for other potential grant opportunities.
The Calaveras County Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA) also administers housing assistance programs, particularly through CalWORKs, which “helps eligible families become self-supporting through temporary cash aid.”
Additionally, the agency offers support specific to mentally ill individuals through Full Service Partnership Housing.
Calaveras County HHSA Director Kristin Brinks told the Enterprise, “The difficulty continues to be identifying units that are affordable for clients long term.”