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Business, Labor Groups Fail to Find Common Ground on Santa Rosa Housing Bond

Faced with increasingly expensive housing, Santa Rosa is attempting to build more affordable housing with a mixture of incentives and an affordable housing bond.

The Santa Rosa Housing Recovery Bond, Measure N on the city’s November ballot, will create a $124 million bond to fund the construction of approximately 1,200 affordable housing units within the city limits, according to a city report on the measure.

But not all Santa Rosans are on board for the measure. Jack Buckhorn, executive director of the North Bay Labor Council, announced in a September 19 interview that his organization will actively work against the housing bond after discussions with developers and politicians broke down.

Although Buckhorn agrees that the city needs more affordable housing, he said that the measure provides inadequate labor protections, increases taxes on the 3,000 Santa Rosa homeowners who lost their homes in last year’s fires, and will further enrich the city’s developers.

“We need to do better,” Buckhorn said. “We’re going to do what we can to implement a better plan if we successfully defeat this measure.”

The bond’s sponsor, City Councilmember Jack Tibbetts, said that the measurewill act as a “robust economic stimulus package” for Santa Rosa by adding $750 million to the local economy over the bond’s 30-year lifespan once the bond money is matched by affordable housing funds from the state.

“We’re asking voters to make an investment in our community,” Tibbetts said in an interview.

Recent polls by the campaign showed that the bill had between 66 and 74 percent support from voters, Tibbetts said.

The Measure is endorsed by groups including the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber of Commerce, the Greenbelt Alliance, Santa Rosa Teacher’s Association and the California Apartment Owners Association.

Measure N’s supporters point out that similar housing bonds passed with wide margins in Alameda County, Oakland and Berkeley in the November 2016 elections.

Although the legislation itself does not specify what kind of affordable housing will be constructed with the bond funds, the City Council passed implementation guidelines for the money at its August 7 meeting.

Debate over the legislation dragged out after the city council failed to pass implementation guidelines wanted by labor groups that would have required the housing to include 20 percent union apprentices and 10 percent union journeymen at an August 7 meeting. Instead, the council passed rules recommending the use of 20 percent union apprentices.

The guidelines passed by the city council suggest that 75 percent of the funds will be used for low-income housing units for residents making less than 80 percent of the Area Median Income, that prevailing wage will be paid for projects with more than eight units and that “preference be given to climate-smart, net zero or all-electric construction standards.”

However, the document also states that the “City Council may make exceptions or modifications to this policy from time to time as it deems necessary or desirable,” due to unforeseen changes in housing and economic conditions.

Because of this language, Buckhorn worries that the city may not honor the bond recommendations.

At the same time, the Santa Rosa City Council is set to discuss three proposed programs to prioritize taller residential buildings downtown at its September 25 meeting.

Under one of the three programs, the city would reduce the price of building permits per unit for each additional floor of the building. Additional incentives would be offered for affordable housing units.

Pre-Existing Conditions

Measure N and Santa Rosa’s proposed incentive programs are the latest attempts to overcome the county’s long-term struggle to construct affordable housing units.

In a 2003 report on the county’s lack of affordable housing, Nari Rhee, now a UC Berkeley professor, wrote a report titled “Affordable Housing for Everyone: Solutions to Sonoma County’s Housing Crisis.”

The report outlines challenges that still exist today: too many low-wage jobs and a lack of new affordable housing due to a mixture of high construction costs, too little state and federal funding, and stagnant negotiations over housing.

Today, the average two-bedroom apartment in Santa Rosa rents for $2,089, meaning that a family would need an income of $89,529 to pay 30 percent of their paychecks in rent. Instead, the median household income is $62,705, according to 2017 Census data.

“Local land use policies and exclusionary NIMBY (not in my backyard) politics, in tandem with the political dominance of developers in many jurisdictions in Sonoma County, have added significant constraints on the development of housing for lower- and moderate-income individuals and families,” the report states.

As a result, Sonoma County, has historically failed to meet suggested affordable housing production rates while sometimes producing more than enough market-rate housing.

“Between 1988 and 1998, Sonoma County jurisdictions collectively produced less than one-fifth of the county-wide goal for very low-income housing; just over half of the goal for low-income housing; and just over four-fifths of the goal for moderate-income housing,” the report states.

During the same time period, the county produced twice the amount of required above-moderate-income housing.

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