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Ventura County

Tight Market Slams Door on Renters

Housing: Experts say available apartments are becoming so rare and expensive that many low- and middle-income workers are forced to move out of the county.

July 21, 2002|JESSICA BLANCHARD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Leah Coulter has done everything she can think of to find an apartment in Ventura County since moving from Chatsworth in March.

She pored over classified ads, which yielded nothing but a handful of apartments well out of her price range. She walked through neighborhoods, knocking on doors and inquiring about rental possibilities.

She even wrote letters to 40 homeowners, asking if they would be interested in leasing out their guest houses. She has yet to receive a response.

So, for the past four months Coulter, 38, has been staying with friends in Newbury Park and commuting to her job at an Oxnard real estate agency.

Real estate analysts say the rental market is so tight, and available apartments and houses are becoming so rare and expensive, that many low- and middle-income workers are slowly being forced to move out of the county.

"We're living in one of the places in the world where everybody wants to live, figuratively," said Paul Sheehan of the Dyer Sheehan Group, a Ventura-based real estate consulting firm. The housing shortage will continue to be a problem, he said, "as long as there are people out there who can reach in their pocket and pay the higher costs."

The apartment vacancy rate dipped to a mere 1.69% in July, according to preliminary findings by the Dyer Sheehan Group, which conducts biannual surveys of 18,000 apartments in Ventura County. That figure is well below the desired rate of about 5%, which is considered healthy, allowing both tenants and landlords to be selective.

"It's approaching a crisis situation," said Kay Wilson-Bolton, owner of Century 21 Buenavista and Century 21 Ojai Valley. Of the 300 units her agencies manage in Santa Paula, Fillmore and Ojai, there is only one vacancy.

"There are very few places for people to go, and competition is excessive," she said.

Harried real estate agents from around the county report being swamped with applications from desperate apartment hunters, even for listings that are sight-unseen.

Renters are snapping up apartments and houses, with some of the highest rents and lowest vacancy rates occurring in the east end of the county. The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment countywide is $1,261.

"It's very grim," said Elaine Pettersen, owner of Hacienda Realty in Camarillo and past president of Coastal Real Estate Assn. Pettersen said she sees an increasing number of people looking at purchasing a home and paying a mortgage, rather than continuing to pay the going rate for an apartment.

Because it's been a landlord's market for about six years, many apartment managers and land management companies have had the opportunity to be very selective about their potential tenants, Wilson-Bolton said.

"Some [owners] are even requesting full background checks on potential tenants, because they want the 'best of the best,' and that's maybe one way to determine it," Wilson-Bolton said.

At the same time, so much competition for the few apartments available means property owners don't have to make much of an effort to attract prospective tenants, said Dawn Dyer, president of the Dyer Sheehan Group.

"Landlords have less incentive to improve their units," she said. "Not that all of them don't, but if they have a renter lined up, there's no real need to clean a unit, make improvements to the building, and so on."

Ventura County has long been a difficult rental market to break into, but analysts say it is rapidly reaching the point where it may negatively affect the county's economy.

"We are just not producing housing that meets the demands of the types of jobs we're producing," Dyer said.

"And, unfortunately, we may start to see negative impacts to our economic base if we can't do something. Companies may choose not to expand here or may relocate to other areas. At the very least, it certainly impacts a company's ability to recruit and retain good employees."

The same factors that have fueled the current rental housing shortage--natural population growth, a strong economy and a shortage of available apartments and houses to rent--still exist, and are not very likely to change anytime soon, Dyer said.

That isn't comforting for Coulter, who estimates she has spent an average of 12 hours each week on her apartment search.

She says she can stay with friends until October, and that she will just keep looking.

But after four months of fruitless searching, it's hard not to get frustrated. "There's just nothing out there," she said.

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Sticker Shock

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Average monthly rents in Ventura County for January City Studio 1 bdrm 2 bdrm 3 bdrm Camarillo $838 $1,039 $1,281 $1,592 Fillmore n/a $628 $833 $1,021 Moorpark $645 $965 $1,200 $1,512 Ojai Valley $782 $751 $833 n/a Oxnard/Port Hueneme $827 $916 $1,259 $1,688 Santa Paula $482 $591 $794 $915 Simi Valley n/a $1,074 $1,257 $1,388 Thousand Oaks/ Westlake $896 $1,137 $1,367 $1,625 Ventura $679 $926 $1,210 $1,112 Countywide $789 $998 $1,261 $1,480 Source: The Dyer Sheehan Group

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