Fresno rents increased an average of 10.8% in the last year, while rents declined overall in California and across the United States, according to data analysis by Apartment List.

Apartment List

Rent in Fresno is going up, up, up.

The average cost of rent in Fresno increased by 10.8% in the last year, despite state law limiting rent hikes, data analysis by Apartment List shows. It’s the second-biggest rent increase in the country this year compared to other cities, and in stark contrast to the statewide average that decreased 5%.

The spike comes after several years of rent hikes in Fresno. Average rents grew 35.7% in the last four years, the largest increase in the country.

“It seems the pandemic has accelerated some of the growth in Fresno,” said Chris Salviati, a housing economist with Apartment List. “But if we look at the data, Fresno has been a hot market for several years.”

The sharp increase during the pandemic is squeezing low-income and working households, many of which are already cash poor during the COVID economy. Fresno’s unemployment rate stalled around 10.5% as of December, after spiking to nearly 17% in April.

Even before the pandemic, the Fresno area had an estimated 35,000-unit shortfall in affordable rental housing, and now the competition for low-income apartments is even more fierce.

“We were already in a pretty bad situation for having affordable housing in Fresno,” said Amber R. Crowell, assistant professor at Fresno State, a sociologist and housing advocate with Faith in the Valley. “For low-income tenants, it’s becoming more and more difficult, almost impossible to find housing.”

Some tenants ‘just can’t pay it’

Median rents in Fresno are now $977 for a 1-bedroom apartment and $1,216 for a 2-bedroom.

Residents in the Tower District, downtown and central Fresno told The Fresno Bee they’re being told their rent is hiking $40 to $100 a month, while incomes mostly remained stagnant or decreased during COVID-19.

Some can pay the increase, but not all.

Mary Vega, 57, was recently told the rent for her 3-bedroom home near McLane High School will increase from $1,200 to $1,300 in March.

“I just can’t pay it. I can’t,” said Vega, who takes care of her mother who has dementia. Vega currently brings in $1,000 every two weeks from workers’ compensation because of an injured arm.

She would like to get back in the workforce as an office technician to bring in more money, but the surgery she needs has been postponed because of limited oxygen supplies as a result of the high number of COVID-19 hospitalizations in Fresno.

“I’m not complaining. I don’t want to take away resources from somebody that needs it to survive,” she said, but she is running out of options.

“I can’t move right now because I’ve got to save up first and last month’s rent. I can’t save that,” Vega said. “Do I just cause more injury to myself and go back to work? I need to work.”

“Who would have known this pandemic would have hurt like this?” she told The Bee.

The Fresno housing market is hot

Even if Vega could afford to move, rental options are limited and increasingly competitive. Apartments and homes rent quickly, sometimes by people who haven’t even seen the property.

Residential property manager Lionel Akpovi said he has seen that first-hand, particularly with people from Los Angeles and the Bay Area who can now work from home and are moving to the Central Valley because it is more affordable.

Workers appear to be fleeing from cities with inflated housing costs, such as San Francisco, which saw a 27% decrease in rents in the last year. That may be driving up costs in markets like Fresno and Boise, where rent is generally more affordable.

“Rents have been up like crazy because the demand is going up,” Akpovi said.

He serves as president of Realtist of Fresno County, an organization working to increase home ownership among African American and underserved communities.

“Nobody really knows what’s going to happen with the market. But we’re seeing rates as low as we’re ever going to see. We’re seeing buyers who want to take advantage of that,” Akpovi said.

“If rents continue to go up, it makes even more sense to buy, even with the increased prices in the housing market,” he said.

Buying a home right now is competitive, as well.

Zillow estimates the average home value in the Fresno metro area increased by 10.5% in the past year, reaching $294,000. Residents attempting to buy are competing with investors making cash offers.

Even with substantial increase in the last year, average rents in Fresno remain lower than other metro areas in California, as shown in this January 2021 graph created by Apartment List. Apartment List

Limited protection for renters

Several people told The Bee their rent recently increased by exactly 6%. That it wasn’t higher is likely a result of AB 1482, the California Tenant Protection Act, which went into effect Jan. 1, 2020 and caps annual rent increases for some housing at 5% plus inflation.

Meanwhile, salaries aren’t keeping up.

Michelle Rogers, 36, rents a small bungalow in Fresno’s Tower District where she grew up. Her rent just increased 6% from $750 to $795, while her salary as a public school teacher remained unchanged without an annual cost of living increase.

She can pay it, she said, but it may be difficult.

“I have to balance paying my rent and paying down the debt,” Rogers told The Fresno Bee.

There are circumstances where rent can be increased more than 6% — AB 1482 only applies to units over 15 years old — but all rent hikes over 10% during the pandemic are unlawful.

The law also has a “just cause” provision that says 30-day evictions must be the result of a cause, such as a tenant violating the lease.

Tenants are protected from eviction for nonpayment during the public health emergency, if they submitted a declaration of lost income as a result of COVID-19 and have paid at least 25% of rent. The moratorium is scheduled to expire in July.

The laws don’t always protect tenants from eviction and high rent, especially when tenants are not able to or too fearful to access resources because of their immigration or financial status.

One Fresno resident who did not want to be named told The Bee her rent increased from $650 to $825 a month beginning in January. That’s a 27% hike.

“By all accounts, there are landlords that are breaking the law,” Crowell said. “The reason? First of all, it’s profitable. And, many landlords know they have a lot of power over renters. Renters aren’t often going to take their landlords to court because they can’t afford it.”

Rather than contest the issue and take their landlord to court, a majority of tenants will just leave, especially the 99% of tenants facing eviction that do not have attorneys, Crowell said.

The city of Fresno is currently considering a right-to-council ordinance that would provide tenants with legal representation paid for by public funds.

Still, the reality is that low-income tenants are being priced out.

“They’re going to be squeezed more,” Crowell said. “They were already so squeezed.”

How to get help

Did your rent go up? Central California Legal Services can help you do the calculations to determine if the increase is legal. If it is unlawful, they can advise you and contact your landlord. Call 800-675-8001 for legal aid.

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