For an image of what Napa’s high housing prices look like, visit 29-year-old Aaron Casillas who still lives at home with his parents.

Aaron and his own family – his wife, Rebecca and their two young children – share a bedroom in his parents’ single-family home in north Napa. Their little room is jammed with a full-size bed, a twin bed for their 4-year-old son and a crib for their 4-month-old daughter.

Their walls are decorated with children’s posters, their TV plays their son’s favorite cartoons and their shelves are full of pantry items and baby food kept separate from the rest of the household’s groceries.

The home, once designed as a three-bedroom, has been converted to five bedrooms. Aaron’s brother’s family, a family of three, also stays with his parents as does his adult sister.

Aaron described their current living situation as “overwhelming.” No one has any privacy, which makes living with your whole family extra stressful, he said. And it isn’t any easier on his parents who both still work. “I feel for them,” Aaron said.

They all plan to move out, Rebecca said, but actually doing it is difficult. They’ve been living like this on and off for years because no one can afford their own apartments in Napa where the Casillas children all grew up.

Now, a move-out date has been set for them. His parents want them out by June, Aaron said.

And he understands. He said he feels he is at an age where he should be able to afford a place of his own, especially since he has his own growing family. But between Rebecca taking maternity leave from work, Aaron leaving his second job, a car payment that is a third of their income, and the cost of phone, insurance and credit card bills, money is tight.

Depending on his hours, Aaron, who has a high school diploma, said he makes about $20,000 year. He has been holding down two jobs, both in the medical field working with special-needs individuals.

“I love my job,” he explained, but it’s disheartening to see advertisements for jobs with fast-food chains that start at a similar rate.

“Another person’s life depends on us,” said Rebecca, who also worked in the healthcare industry. Her and her husband’s pay don’t reflect the responsibilities that they have caring for other people and is hardly livable, she said. “We’re not getting paid to where it reflects our job.”

In the coming weeks, Aaron hopes to work nights so Rebecca can go back to working a part-time job in retail during the day. She’ll also be working some overnights in the special-needs field, he said.

The Casillas are looking at one-bedroom apartments in Napa and two-bedroom places in Vallejo. Although they would like to raise their children in Napa, they said it may not be an option given the high rents here.

“For right now, Vallejo seems like our best bet,” he said.

Aaron said they will be putting applications into some low-income apartment complexes, but he believes their income is just over the qualifying limit.

“We make too much, but not enough,” Rebecca said.

They recently called about the Section 8 rent subsidy program, but were informed that the waiting list is closed. It’s been closed since March 2013. The waiting period is an average of six years if you live or work in Napa County, said Lark Ferrell, housing manager for Napa’s Housing Division. Approximately 8,000 names are on that waiting list, she said.

Ferrell said she doesn’t know when the city will accept more names for the waiting list – it’s so long already.

Even when someone receives a voucher from Section 8, there isn’t a guarantee they will find housing immediately, Ferrell said. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development sets rent limits that lag the surging Napa rental market, she said.

Also, with rentals in high demand, landlords will often favor people with higher incomes who do not need federal subsidies, Ferrell said.

The housing division tries to give reasonable extensions when it can so the prized vouchers don’t expire, Ferrell said. It now allows people to use vouchers for shared housing, like renting a room, and has contracted to have someone help people in their search. “The vast majority of people do find units,” Ferrell said.

High-priced housing “is not just a Napa problem, this is a Bay Area problem,” Ferrell said.

Napa near top of least affordable areas

According to a report released by RealtyTrac and Clear Capital, during the first quarter of 2015, Napa County was ranked as one of the least affordable areas to buy a home in the U.S.

In the fourth quarter, Napa was ranked 219 out of 225 cities nationally for affordability by the National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Opportunity Index (HOI). During this quarter, 20.9 percent homes were affordable for median income earners and the median sales price of homes was $562,000.

The average median income for a family of four in Napa County was $86,100 in 2015 (more than four times the amount that the Casillas bring in) compared with $82,600 in both Solano and Sonoma counties, according to the California Department of Housing and Community Development.

Even though Napa County has a higher average median income compared to surrounding counties, the housing prices here are disproportionately higher, said Larry Florin, director of Napa County Housing & Intergovernmental Affairs.

“Forty-percent of the county workforce commutes from outside the county,” he said, because they can’t afford housing or choose to live somewhere that costs less. That includes teachers, public safety workers and other county workers.

And, although leaving the county may save people money when it comes to housing, the decision incurs other costs like an increase in commute time, gas expenses and vehicle maintenance.

“The scope of the problem is big,” he said. It affects low-income people in addition to the middle class as well as the farm workers that our major industry depends on, he said. And, because of the Agricultural Preserve, most of the county is off limits to growth and development.

“When you limit the amount of development you can do, there’s an impact,” Florin said. In this case, the county isn’t able to meet the demand that it has for its workforce.

“There is a great deal of desire for people to live here,” Florin explained. That has a lot to do with the wine and tourism industries, he said. “There’s just not the housing stock to accommodate the folks who want to leave here.”

The county has programs to help people, he said, but the demand far exceeds the supply.

A senior citizen’s story

Low- to middle-income earners aren’t the only ones affected. So are Napa County’s senior citizens.

June Smith, 72, was born in Napa on Second Avenue in 1943. For years, Smith cleaned houses for a living and resided with her mother. After her mother died over a decade ago, she shared expenses with her boyfriend who eventually died of cancer. And then the earthquake happened.

She had been living in a local mobile home park, but her home was wrecked in the earthquake. She sold her space and collected some money, but the funds weren’t enough to help her find a new home in town. “Here I was with $45,000 cash and could not find anything in Napa,” Smith said.

Unable to get into senior housing and with only her Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (about $909 a month), Smith began looking for housing elsewhere. She currently stays in Kelseyville – more than an hour away from her family, her friends, her church and her lifelong home.

“It’s frustrating,” Smith said. “I guess I was so used to my friends around. I’m kind of lonely up here.”

She tries to keep a positive attitude, and stays active by going hiking, riding her bicycle and working in the yard. She makes a trip to Yountville at least once a week to attend church.

Smith explained that the area she lives in now doesn’t compare at all to Napa. “The culture here is a lot different than what I grew up into,” she said. She doesn’t have the same relationships with her new neighbors like she did with the old ones, she said.

“It’s not exactly where I want to spend the rest of my life.”

Although she realizes rents are high everywhere these days, she said starting over on her own has been a real eye-opener. “When you grew up some place, you took it for granted,” she said. But now she knows what the housing prices are really like: “sky-high.”

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Maria Sestito is the former Napa Valley Register public safety reporter. She now writes for the Register as a freelancer.

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