The vaunted affordability of Bakersfield's rental housing is fading fast.
Apartment rents in the city rose about as fast in the first three quarters of this year as they did in all of 2019, according to a new survey by Bakersfield's ASU Commercial. It showed the average price increase citywide was up about 12 percent — already more than 2020's year-end 9 percent.
This jump, primarily a result of lopsided supply and demand, is worsening the city's housing crisis, making it harder for people to recover from homelessness and causing those with an apartment to think twice about moving.
"We thought Bakersfield was so affordable," said Carlos Baldovinos, executive director of The Mission at Kern County homeless shelter. "But the driving of the housing market has hurt it, for the affordability side of it."
He said when the shelter's graduates try to move into rental housing, usually with a subsidized voucher, there are not enough apartments available, and the units are not intended to be long-term anyway. When they look for a place they can afford there's not much available.
"They have a minimum-wage job. They can't pay $1,800 per month for an apartment. That's just not doable," he said. "That's called L.A. prices."
Bakersfield's housing market has tightened drastically in recent years as a shortage of both apartments and homes for rent has met with heightened demand from people moving in from outside the area during the pandemic's loosening of in-person workplace restrictions.
ASU reports vacancy rates are about as low as they've ever been, while reports by appraiser Gary Crabtree show home prices this year have hit record highs. Apartment managers say they're getting more calls than ever from people desperate for a place to live.
Local governments are doing what they can to support construction of affordable housing units, said Heather Kimmel, assistant executive director of the Housing Authority of the County of Kern. At the same time, development of market-rate apartments has picked up. But Kimmel said it's not enough.
She cited a 2019 study suggesting Kern County needed more than 26,000 units of affordable housing to meet demand. That was prior to the tightening that has occurred since the pandemic, she said, and incomes haven't kept pace with the ensuing rent increases.
"We're seeing just the gap grow and the need increase," Kimmel said. City and county government are streamlining pathways for apartment developers, and the Housing Authority is working on introducing new inventory, she added, "but building housing takes time."
It's not just people in so-called affordable housing that are having a hard time. So are tenants in market-rate apartment complexes.
More than a third of the tenants who tell local apartment owner St. Clair Realty Inc. that they're moving quickly think better of it, owner Frank St. Clair said, adding that the share may be closer to half.
"When you ask them, every time it's the same story: 'Oh, my God, I didn't realize the rent has gone up (that much),'" he said.
"They get a price shock," he continued. "They don't want to move."
ASU reported the number of properties charging $2,000 or more for rent tripled to six in the third quarter alone.
Meanwhile, no landlords across the city are offering concessions such as reduced fees, it reported, and nearly three dozen were charging for utility costs. Both market indicators represent a significant turnaround from recent years past.
Ian William Sharples, a board member for the Income Property Association of Kern, said by email there's no question Bakersfield is experiencing a "landlord's market" driven by high demand and low supply.
There's a risk of prices rising too high too fast, he wrote: A market bubble could form. It might not be worth it in the long run for landlords to raise rents to the point that renters can't keep up.
"If new renters are attracted by affordability but the affordability vanishes," he wrote, "then we are back at square one."