You don't have to tell Jeff Johnson why rents continue to climb in the Southland. His family of four is living the reason.

They lost their home in Naples to foreclosure nearly five years ago when Johnson's wife, Shelly, lost her job. Since then, the Johnsons have been renting a house in Belmont Shore.

"We weren't left with many options," Jeff Johnson said. "We tried to refinance, make payments and work with our lender, but we lost the house. We found ourselves renting again, and our credit scores were hit hard, and almost five years later, here we are - still renting."

Like so many others, the Johnsons were double victims of the housing market collapse. Not only did they lose their home, but they found themselves at the mercy of a rental market where rates were climbing because demand was so high.

Today, qualifying for a mortgage has become very difficult for many aspiring, young buyers, keeping them in rental properties longer. And it's even more difficult for those with incomes or credit scores bruised by unemployment and foreclosure.

Coupled with population growth, this has spurred rising rents across the country.

According to Reis Inc., a New York based real-estate data firm, the "effective" monthly rent - meaning the final amount paid including discounts - averaged $1,009 in December, up 2.3 percent from a year ago.

In Southern California, the hardest hit was Los Angeles County, where rent increased 7.9 percent to $1,623, with total growth expected to hit 9.6 percent by the end of 2013. In 2011, the average rent was $1,596.

And if higher rent doesn't sound like news, it's because rents already increased last year. Rental prices in 2011 rose in 39 of 40 submarkets in Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, according to a study done by USC's Lusk Center for Real Estate. That's in stark contrast to 2009, when rents rose in only three markets, and 2010, when 26 markets saw increasing rents.

In the rest of the Southland, average rent was up all around.

In the Inland Empire, rent increased 3 percent to $1,101 in 2012, with total growth expected to hit 3.8 percent by the end of 2013. In 2011, the average rent was $1,069 a month.

In Orange County, rent increased 3.3 percent to $1,573 in 2012, with an expected total growth to 5.1 percent by the end of 2013. In 2011, the average rent was $1,523.

In San Diego, rent increased 3.4 percent to $1,424 in 2012, with with an expected total growth of 5.2 percent by the end of 2013. In 2011, rent was $1,377 a month.

Landlords no longer have to "pony up in order to entice tenants," said Victor Calanog, Reis's chief economist, in a press release. He added that rising vacancies suggest rents are "approaching equilibrium," but aren't likely to fall soon.

The rising cost of renting is putting pressure on tenants at a time when many are still grappling with falling incomes or slow income growth.

In the third quarter, renters spent 24.1 percent of their disposable income on financial obligations - things such as rent, debts and auto leases. That was the highest level since early 2010, according to the Federal Reserve.

This contrasts with living costs for homeowners, which have fallen steadily in recent years amid record low interest rates.

During the third quarter, homeowners, including those who don't have mortgages, spent 13.9 percent of their disposable income on financial obligations, the lowest share since 1984, according to the Federal Reserve.

Housing is just one of many costs in a consumer's annual budget. Gasoline prices have been falling, inflation has remained in check, and low interest rates mean lower monthly payments on auto loans and other debts.

But foreclosure rates and stricter mortgage-lending standards have helped make rental housing the best-performing segment of commercial real estate for the past two years.

The vacancy rate, apartments available for rent, has fallen for seven straight quarters from a three-decade high of 8 percent at the end of 2009, according to Reis. The rate, which now stands at 5.2 percent, the lowest since the end of 2001, dropped from 5.6 percent last month.

This demand, Johnson said, has given "landlords the upper hand."

A 36-year-old iron worker, Johnson, said he is paying more than a third of his $60,000 annual income on a $2,000-a-month house he and his family are renting.

"Our credit score has taken a dive and I'm not sure if we will ever be able to buy again," he said. "And with so many people in the same boat, landlords have taken advantage. Rent has gone up and it is a real struggle."

U.S. landlords' asking rents rose to $1,064 in 2012 from $1,043 on average a year earlier and $1,059 in the previous three months, according to the Reis report. Effective rents were little changed from the third quarter's $1,004.

"The implicit demand for rental units will remain high as long as the for-sale housing market remains on the ropes," Calanog said in the report.

One of the biggest reasons for the rise in rent, Calanog said, is the "utter lack of supply."

During the housing boom, developers primarily focused on building single-family homes and condominiums. While some of those properties have returned to the market as rental housing, demand to buy new homes remains strong.

But there may be some relief in the form of construction.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, builders are making up for lost time and multifamily construction is rebounding from a 50-year low reached in 2009.

Construction spending, according to the Census Bureau, has climbed to $23.8 billion from $15.6 billion in a year's time. During this same time period, apartment vacancies rose slightly, from 4.6 to 4.7 percent, the first increase since 2009, according to Reis.

Calanog said construction of new complexes may cause rent hikes to stall.

"The sector is benefiting from some of the lowest figures for new construction on record," he said. "By 2013, the influx of new units may begin eroding any benefit the sector derives from tight supply conditions."

In the long run, rising rents will encourage more families to buy.

This was the case for Sarah Beth Smith and husband Donny, who bought a home in Long Beach for $115,000, lowering their monthly housing cost to $700 for the mortgage and taxes from the $1,250 they were paying to rent.

Sarah Beth, a stay-at-home mother, said they have used the majority of the savings to catch up on bills that were neglected while renting. She said the savings also allows for more family outings with their three children.

"We ran the numbers over and over again," she said. "And we just couldn't figure out why we were renting - we were giving money to someone else when we could save money and own our own home."

kelsey.duckett@presstelegram.com, 562-714-2128, Twitter: @KelseyDuckett