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Seeking HOME - finding solutions to Affordable Housing


Seeking HOME - finding solutions to Affordable Housing

By Vesta Copestakes

“Home” and “Homeless” are taking on new meaning lately. Sonoma County is working to solve the affordable housing dilemma while people are fleeing countries where their lives are at risk. Whether trying to find shelter or safety, people living uncertain lives experience daily stress beyond most of our understanding.  

Being a second generation American I totally understand the history of people coming to this country. Back in the “Old County” freedoms and rights were few. People were told what religion to worship, what profession to follow, where to live, who to love, even what to wear. Sound familiar? Our country has been the place people come to get away from all that. 

And they still do.

We, who have grown up here, know exactly what it’s like to feel freedom of choice. Since I was born, we increased rights of individuals one step at a time. It’s a slow process. You’d think the nation that stands for “Freedom and Justice for ALL” would find it easy. Our founding leaders established these rights “to be self-evident, that all (wo)men are created equal.” Seems we are forgetting what we stand for.

There are no simple solutions to the pains of growth and change, as there are no simple solutions to affordable housing. But we’re working on all of it.

Homes for ALL

Pretty much every week the Sonoma County Community Development Commission gets together with people who are committed to finding solutions for housing. As the saying goes...“housing first”.  

That particular phrase is used in reference to helping people rise from drug and alcohol addictions that make responsible lives impossible. No one who runs a successful business is going to hire an addict who cannot function or even take care of him/herself. 

The idea is to create stability so there is a foundation under someone upon with they can rise and stand on their own. For some motivated people, this is a real possibility. For others, it’s impossible. But very few of us can identify who can rise from their own ashes and who cannot. So with compassion, we try to find a solution that works for as many as possible.

Building Homes: A Policy maker's Toolbox

Building Homes: A Policy Maker’s Toolbox

Working Homeless

The working homeless are the first round of people who can be helped. They have jobs, families, friends...everything we consider a normal life, but do not have a place to live. 

Junior & Accessory Dwellings

At the end of January the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved the construction of two kinds of potentially affordable housing.

Junior Units are built in an existing home like a 3 bedroom, 2 bath that is under-utilized. Perhaps a person lives alone, or it’s a couple with extra rooms. Instead of opening their house to roommates where kitchen and bath are shared, they create an apartment in part of their house. This does not change the footprint of the home, nor does it require upgrades to septic or sewer. The same number of people live in the house for which it was designed. 

Take the master bed and bath, close it off from the rest of the house, put in a kitchen and outside door to create a studio apartment. This not only provides a less expensive shelter for someone, it also helps the home owner pay the mortgage and therefore stay in the house they have lived in. It’s a win/win for everyone.

Accessory Dwelling Units are the Granny Units or Tiny Houses people talk about. They are more complicated because they require land and additional sewer/septic. They are also more expensive to build since they are independent of the main house and need all the infrastucture (plumbing, electric, internet, etc.) that the main house needs. 

Sonoma County is trying to make these affordable by using  pre-approved designs so each unit does not need to go through a design review process. Other counties have successfully established this system, but it is still can be expensive. It also requires additional parking in a way that Junior Units do not. 

Funding New Dwellings

The county is working on way to fund both of these options through programs that involve both private and public investors. 

If the homeowner cannot qualify for a conventional loan, the county can offer options. They can take low income into consideration knowing that this unit will provide additional income, and loan homeowners construction money based on that occupancy. A bank may not be so considerate, but the county is looking for housing solutions, so they consider everyone’s needs. 

For people who say this works for individuals but not for families - well - you have to start somewhere. 

Equity Partnerships

Back when my daughter was four, I faced the same challenge many are facing now. The affordable house I lived in as a single mother, which I shared with another single mother, went on the market. The owners were getting divorced and needed to sell. 

I was fortunate that I had a friend who was willing to help me purchase a home for the same monthly nut a rental would cost. I did not qualify for the loan by myself, but with his help, he owned half my home until I could buy him out 12 years later.

There are investors who want to make money and are willing to do what my friend did. One program is called Unison Home Ownership Investors ( It’s a partnership with an investor where buyers can put down less than 20 percent to buy a home. The rest of the downpayment cash provided is an investment, not a loan, so there are no monthly payments or interest. Instead, the company hopes to earn a return on its investment by sharing in the appreciation when the home owner eventually sells.

Another option for the homeowner is what I did. Refinance, pull equity out of the home when time goes by and it appreciates in value, and buy out the investor.

HOME Investment Partnerships Program

Another program you may want to look into is on Sonoma County's website: - The HOME Investment Partnerships Program is primarily for very low-income families, but there are numerous options so it;s worthy of your time to look into them to see if any apply to your situation.

Between the county and private investors, there are ways that individuals can buy and build affordable housing as in-fill, rather than new construction which is incredibly expensive. Ultimately in-fill is the first stage of providing affordable housing.

Compassion and creative problem solving can provide solutions for some, but not all. It’s  a step in the right direction. One foot in front of the other gets us down the road.