Nevada County rental housing market tough

Amid the economic crisis, Grace MacKenzie was left to live in the cramped confines of an RV on her friend’s property for three years.

MacKenzie carried not only basic belongings like clothing and toiletries but also a guitar, electric keyboard, food dehydrator, computer and printer.

“The space was small and cramped,” she said. “And every time I needed something, I had to do move something else out of the way.”

The RV also posed challenges with the septic system and moving the vehicle, as well as expensive repairs, poor insulation and the need to recaulk the roof every fall to prevent leakage.

“I had a leak one winter that I didn’t know about until it had ruined an entire row of books and soaked my shoes and the carpet under one of the bedroom windows,” MacKenzie said. “That was a rough winter.”

Property managers have cited an improved economy with increased real estate activity that is creating a high demand in a limited pool of rental properties. Many in the rental market are desperate to find a place at an affordable monthly rate.

“Our rental rates did stay flat for a number of years during the severest downturn of the economy,” said Karen Ahrns, owner/broker of Property Associates. “I’m not raising the rent on current tenants, but I can raise for new tenants about 5 to 10 percent.”

Other property managers reported a trend for homeowners to rent rather than sell their homes.

“From a landlord’s point of view, (the economy has) gotten better,” said John Curtis, owner of Grassroots Property Management. “There’s a better selection of tenants, and it’s better for the property owner and property managements that rents have been going up for the last year.

“The economy is growing and getting better, and there’s just more demand for rental property because people are choosing not to buy, so the rental property isn’t getting scarcer, it’s just getting more demand.”

The number of properties sold is currently equal to numbers in 2005 or 2006, Curtis said, but the sale prices are about 30 percent lower than those years and more aligned with prices in 2001-2002.

Curtis, who has 25 years of property management experience, also reported a spike in the number of rental properties Grassroots Property manages with 20 available properties as of last month, “the most we’ve ever had in the history of our company,” he said.

For those who cannot find homes, living on the streets, with friends or family, in a trailer or RV like MacKenzie, or a motel like Breezy Phillips, a married mother of three, are the only options.

Phillips moved from New Jersey to Grass Valley with her husband because he wanted to live closer to his father, and they continued to lease from her stepfather in a local apartment complex until new owners came in and kicked them out, along with several other families, she said.

“New management took over in February and gave us four days to get out,” she said. “I had a 3-week-old baby, a 3- and 4-year-old and had to be out by 9 a.m. Monday. I couldn’t afford an eviction or I would never be able to rent another place again.”

The family stayed at a motel for nearly three months and put their belongings in storage, a roughly $500 expense, which included the new furniture they bought a week prior.

“I had just furnished my whole apartment,” she said. “I even asked if I could pay the past-due rent and if we could open up a lease in his name. And they told us no. They were kicking out people left and right, some just because of their dogs that the property managers knew about before new management came in, and they had until the end of the month to move.”

Phillips knew a few other families in the motel, a woman next door with a 3-year-old and 15-month-old and a couple down the hall with a 4-year-old and no car, who had to walk three miles each way from the motel on South Auburn Street in Grass Valley to the One Stop Business and Career Center on Maltman Drive to try to find jobs.

The motel had restrictions as to the number of visitors on the property or the people who came to the door, and all meals had to be made in a Crock-Pot.

“It would take two hours just to cook noodles and the fridge was really small,” she said. “At that time, we had (federal) assistance, but my husband had a job, and I was taking my kids every day and applied to every apartment complex and every rental in town. Everyone was full.”

She was finally able to get into a local apartment complex after one of the prospective tenants’ section 8, federal rental housing assistance funds, fell through, leaving Phillips first on the list as she was acquainted with the manager. Phillips was grateful to move into the apartment, but her neighbor frequently complains to the manager about noise.

“You can’t have three kids and expect there to not be any noise,” she said.

“It’s really hard to find a place in Grass Valley that’s not $1,300, $1,400 a month, and when you have kids, there’s nothing you can do,” Phillips said.

Phillips accompanied her father-in-law, who paints and fixes houses, on jobs and has seen firsthand the destruction tenants can cause, which makes her situation frustrating, as she said she would appreciate and respect a home where she could raise her family.

“The younger you are, they think you are going to ruin their houses because of tenants they’ve had before,” she said. “I think it has to do with the younger families who ruin it for the families who are actually trying.”

As if finding a place is not enough of a challenge, the added expense of a deposit can be “impossible,” Phillips said, though she understands the need for landlords to protect their property.

“I had a lady who charged me first, last and a $500 deposit, so it was $1,900 to move into a studio,” Phillips said.

“It’s really hard to change people’s mindsets, especially when you don’t know them. Telling them ‘I’m going to do this,’ well I’m sure the last people told them they’re going to keep their house nice, too.”

Houses that are in the $1,200-$1,300 range are snatched up quickly, Curtis said, and prospective tenants need to move fast.

“What I encourage people to do is have an application, proof of insurance, copies of driver’s licenses, and when you find the property you like, look them in the eye and say, ‘I’d like to rent your property,’” Curtis said. “Be ready and prepared.”

To contact Staff Writer Jennifer Terman, email jterman@theunion.com or call 530-477-4230.

“It’s really hard to find a place in Grass Valley that’s not $1,300, $1,400 a month, and when you have kids, there’s nothing you can do.”
Breezy Phillips


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The Union Updated Sep 18, 2013 07:17PM Published Sep 19, 2013 12:26PM Copyright 2013 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.