Posted: June 19, 2019
Sonoma County needs more housing, but our response must be more measured and thoughtful than “build, baby, build.”
As we build more housing, we need to be careful to preserve all of the good things that brought us here in the first place: our unique neighborhoods, our open spaces, our community separators, our natural resources outside of the county’s nine cities.
Let’s build thoughtfully, strategically and with a focus on solving the housing problems of those who need housing the most.
While it has been widely reported that Sonoma County needs 30,000 new housing units in the next five years (based on general plan projections for the county and each of its nine cities), we need to be honest and admit that is an unrealistic goal — particularly considering that our annual production in the past decade has numbered in the hundreds, not thousands.
So let’s break down that 30,000 figure. Again based on general plans and the state-mandated Regional Housing Needs Assessment — which looks at housing needs by income category — about half of that 30,000 total is our identified shortfall of affordable rental housing.
Let’s focus on that first. Because unlike market-rate housing, which by definition gets built when and if the market produces a need for it, affordable rental housing needs help. It needs participation from specialty builders — usually non-profits. It needs tax credits. It needs incentives and requirements from local government. And it almost always needs subsidies, either in the form of land or cash, or the waiving or deferral of fees.
Sonoma County already has some of this in place. Areas of downtown Santa Rosa, Roseland and “The Springs” area along Highway 12 in the Sonoma Valley are designated “Opportunity Zones” by the federal government, which offers tax incentives for certain development. Initiated while I was Mayor, the City of Santa Rosa and County of Sonoma have now created a joint agency called the Renewal Enterprise District (RED) to attract capital, interest from builders and developers and potentially for a tax-increment-financing district that would help pay for infrastructure and other improvements to attract housing and other development downtown and elsewhere in Santa Rosa.
Why should government — and taxpayers — support affordable rentals? Because while the high cost of housing falls most heavily on lower-income residents, its negative effects also ripple outward. It’s bad for all of us.
When we lack affordable housing, our children can’t afford to live nearby when they become adults. Our grandchildren are born and grow up far away.
When we lack affordable housing, we struggle to stay rooted in retirement as our income dips but the cost of living goes through the roof.
When we lack affordable housing, business and industry — not to mention schools, hospitals and non-profits — face a daily battle to retain and recruit employees, increasing their costs and decreasing the quality of service they offer. Meanwhile, their workers drive farther and farther to work here, clogging our highways and belching tons of greenhouse gases into our air, because they can only afford housing out of county.
Rental housing that is affordable to a wide range of incomes addresses all of these problems by giving young, old and working residents a choice about where to live. It doesn’t mean that everyone has to live in an apartment building. It means that more people have a choice — without spending half or more of their paycheck for a roof over their heads.
From 2015-2018 — my time on the City Council of Santa Rosa — we created a plan to build “Housing for All” in Sonoma County’s largest city. We reduced building impact fees in some areas of the city, streamlined permit procedures, shortened the review process for new projects and changed more than two dozen other policies to encourage more housing. Most of these changes affect housing at any level of affordability.
But we also incentivized affordable housing to an even greater degree. For example, a mid-rise apartment building in the downtown core area that includes affordable units available to low or moderate-income individuals or families will pay per-unit fees about 75 percent lower on those affordable units, compared to fees for market-rate housing.
Moving forward, we can also create housing in existing neighborhoods, by encouraging residents who have more space than they need to use that space for additional housing (not to mention additional income). A new state law in 2017 allows almost any owner of a single-family home to create an accessory dwelling unit (ADU, or colloquially, “granny unit”).
In Santa Rosa, we created incentives for building smaller ADUs (there are no impact fees on a unit smaller than 750 square feet) and eliminated requirements for additional parking if the ADU is less than 750 square feet, or within a half mile of a transit stop or a car-share vehicle. These incentives resulted in a significant increase in new ADUs in 2018, and I hope more in the future.
Furthermore, converting an attached garage into an ADU results in no impact fees and, when a transit stop or car-share vehicle is nearby, no additional parking requirement in Santa Rosa. Imagine how many unused garages exist in our community, and then think of each one as a new home. Garages are simple to convert; there are now companies in California that do all the work, provide all the financing and then share the monthly rental income with the homeowner until the conversion is paid off.
These ideas are just a few of the potential pathways toward solving our housing shortage. As we consider them we also need to be aware of the impacts of additional housing on existing communities. Right now, in Santa Rosa, the Downtown Area Specific Plan is being updated with an eye toward allowing greater building heights and higher population densities in the city’s core. This is a public process that will last months and the city will spend tens of thousands of dollars in an effort to facilitate participation from residents. Community engagement doesn't always need to be as extensive or expensive, but neighborhoods deserve the opportunity to help make the plans that will affect them, and government needs to be transparent and listen to the community's needs.
I’d like to see more of these kinds of conversations happening at the county level, too. We need to involve our residents any time we explore changing the face of our communities, especially in light of the need for potential emergency evacuations and services.
So let’s have the conversations, but let’s do something about it, too.
Let’s build to make the best use of the infrastructure and transit investments we already have paid for and have in place. That means increasing density in our downtowns and more urban areas, close to jobs, bus service and the SMART commuter train.
Let’s build closer to the centers of our communities, and away from the edges where the wildland-urban interface increases the likelihood that new homes will be in the path of wildfires.
Let’s build intentionally, respecting and protecting the local environment that makes Sonoma County so special, while honoring and observing our existing, voter-approved urban growth boundaries.
Let’s build up — not out — and incentivize more affordability by reducing fees for smaller units, creating subsidies for long-term affordability contracts and offering certainty to builders and developers who are producing housing that meets our community’s most urgent needs.
Let’s build smart, with an eye toward preserving our resources and protecting our planet. Let’s repurpose existing buildings, like vacant office space and empty garages. Let’s encourage and incentivize green building and renewable energy solutions, with a goal of producing projects that result in net-zero greenhouse gas production.
Let’s build the housing we want and need in Sonoma County.