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Sonoma County Housing Crisis - or - Opportunity


Sonoma County Housing Crisis - or - Opportunity

By Jay Beckwith 

It’s Monday evening and the monthly Healdsburg City Council meeting is standing room only all the way out the doors of City Hall. The issue of housing has been bubbling in the background for months but the wholesale evection of 21 families from an affordable apartment has brought the issue to a boil. During the meeting we heard from several other community members facing the same plight. A Latino family who rent a mobile home who can stay only if they can buy the new units going in at over $300,000, a price point that is seen in this community as “affordable”. A fourth generation Healdsburg grandmother tearfully explains that she must now leave her friends and family and move out of town. We hear of rent increases of 45, and even 65%. There is an appalling story of four food service workers living in a one-room apartment. Surveys taken at the chamber doors find many more examples of families either recently evicted or on notice. 

The majority of the speakers, nearly 50 this evening, push for a rent moratorium. Only a few take an accusatory and hostile tone, rather most are understanding of the complexity of the issue and seek to work with the 

council rather than vilify them. For their part the members of the council were all very moved and compassionate. They expressed a commitment to do all they can to ameliorate the situation. Because of the way Healdsburg is constituted, as a city it does not have the same powers as cities such as San Francisco and rent control is not legally possible. The council has created a working group to develop suggestions for action, which met the following evening. They also granted $50,000 to North Sonoma County Services to provide immediate assistance to those being displaced.

How could this happen? 

It’s really all very logical. We, the voters of Sonoma County, have decided to protect our agricultural heritage, capabilities and productivity and have put in place many potent tools to protect farm land and open space. Good! Those of us who live in town do not want sprawl so we have created strict urban growth boundaries. Also good!

Here’s the problem. Every well-paid job requires four workforce jobs to support it. Every 10 acres of vineyard requires one farmworker. When we protected growers we did not also require that they provide housing for workers and there are currently some 55,000 full-time wine industry employees. Where are they, and seasonal workers, supposed to live since housing cannot longer be built on Ag land? The reality is that they are crammed into the homes of friends and family, their cars or under bridges. 

The only alternative space for housing is in our existing towns. But wait! Those towns can’t expand because of the growth boundaries so this means high-rise apartment complexes, which nobody wants in their backyard.

Protecting agriculture has created a booming economy.  It has also created a lot of wonderful wine. Vintners need a place to sell their product and the direct-to-consumer model has been phenomenally successful. More goodness, but that success means the wineries need places for tasting and since a tasting room creates wine club members and volume sales a small store generates big profits and these businesses can afford to displace the mom and pop stores that made Healdsburg so quaint. So now we have tons of tourists who not only buy wine but also gourmet food and luxury items. These new tourist stores and hotels need workers and since, the tourist businesses don’t pay most of their employees a living wage, over one thousand workers commute into town everyday. Many of the evictions are happening so the rental units can be converted to short-term tourist accommodations that earn more on a weekend than the current occupant pays in a month.

For the past decade we’ve been living on borrowed time. The great recession masked the housing problem to some extent and towns did have some vacancies and infill possibilities. Those days are over. Since 2000 the county has built a few hundred homes each year when we need thousands. Now we have run bone dry and there is nothing in the pipeline.

We can throw up our hands and get angry or frightened, or we can look at this as an opportunity. We were not wrong to support agriculture. We were not wrong to reject sprawl. We are also not alone with this problem and many innovative solutions are beginning to emerge all across the state. 

The new workforce housing communities will have much smaller homes with much more appealing common spaces. They will be uber-green and will require very little water or energy. Most new housing will be clustered along the transit corridor of 101 and the SMART train line preserving our farmlands and open space. We will have a net zero autonomous on-demand transit system that greatly reduces the need for cars, commuting and parking. If we do this wisely all of this will be designed and manufactured locally. And best of all of our towns will retain their character and we will remain uniquely Sonoma County, a place many people want to visit and where all citizens have quality homes regardless of income.

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Sonoma County Housing Crisis - or – Opportunity

This was a very good article on the background of housing debate in Sonoma County, not unlike other environmentally sensitive areas around the country.

Yes, we have preserved the environment with urban growth boundaries, but who have we preserved it for?

Yes, we have planned for commuter rail, city centered development, and affordable housing, SMART GROWTH, but who will take advantage of our planning (Dr George Ellman, Dr Bill Kordum, Rich Thies, the other’s and myself), who is it that the “SMART TRAIN” developers are going to design their commuter site for?

Will it be affordable housing, and is “affordable” measured in the eyes of the “Bay Area” as according to the Economist the City brought in to explain our housing shortage (read “crisis”, as that is the wording in the CA State Planning Code Sec 65000, et sic)?

His definition of affordable was $2.5-$3.5 per sf per month, so an 800 sf apartment will cost $2000-$2800/month? X 3 as required income = $6000-$8400/mo?

Or will we consider affordable according to our own standards of income in Sonoma County? here where 83% of us spend over 45% of monthly income on our housing and transportation combined, the highest % in the US. Information provided by Kathleen Kane to the Tiny Homes Conference.

If we go toward Tiny Homes, let us not forget that we can influence the main body of housing economics from the Margin, this is what economics is all about.

If we have many of these units placed close into regional centers (read SR or Petaluma), we stand the chance of increasing prices of standard housing.

We need to think broadly about the numbers, how many locations for Tiny Homes are required to reduce homelessness, if we go 6 units at a time?

Where can we get 400 sites to locate 2000 plus developments of 6 units each? Or is that the wrong configuration?

Shouldn’t we think of the available parcels which are already subdivided and yet are currently un-buildable? Guerneville has some 3000-10,000 such lots.

Appropriate standards for development can be generated to allow owner occupied dwellings of Tiny Homes in areas currently unbuildable.

Lets look carefully at this alternative to homeless housing, while remembering to keep affordable housing affordable to Sonoma County residents & workers.

Thanks Thomas Ells