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Sonoma County Housing - How Much and Where?

Can We BUILD Our Way to Affordable Housing?

May 5, 2018
by Teri Shore, Greenbelt Alliance


In response to the tragic loss of homes in the October 2017 fires and the critical need for more affordable homes countywide, a slate of new initiatives to speed up development are coming forward that have the potential to quickly change the face of Sonoma County for decades to come.

If new policies and plans stay on track with city-centered growth and greenbelt protection, the county can usher in new era of thriving, affordable neighborhoods in cities and towns near jobs, schools and transit. 

If they stray, we could face a generation of scattered development on the urban edge and across the countryside.

That is why we urgently need a rigorous housing conversation that includes all residents to talk about how and where we build new homes for all – and how many we need.

At a recent fire recovery and housing workshop held by the Board of Supervisors, county and city planning officials claimed that we need to build 30,000 new housing units over the next five years.

Many people are taken aback by this number – a number that far exceeds any official growth projections, and isn’t reflected in any approved city or county plans.

In May, county planners plan to ask the Board of Supervisors to formally adopt the combined county/city goal of 30,000 new housing units as part of a series of housing policy changes and rezoning that are already underway. Such sweeping changes of this magnitude are usually undertaken during a very public General Plan update process, but that has been delayed due to the fires until later this year or 2019.

See the new county housing initiatives website for details:

The city of Santa Rosa is also forwarding streamlined housing and development policies, as are Petaluma and Rohnert Park.

These expedited processes could go far to help the fire recovery and rebuild and provide more affordable housing. Elected officials are clearly committed to upholding voter-approved Urban Growth Boundaries and focusing growth within unincorporated communities such as the Springs, Guerneville and Larkfield-Wikiup.

Several proposals support this approach: updating the Downtown Specific Area Plan in Santa Rosa and Petaluma generating more fees to build affordable housing. A countywide affordable housing bond is also in process.

However, some housing advocates and environmentalists are concerned about ordinances now underway that seek to add housing outside of cities and towns, fail to require affordability and that significantly reduce public and environmental review. In addition, several cities recently rolled back affordable housing requirements for developers.

Housing Numbers: 

Sonoma County lost 5,300 homes lost in the fires, and the rebuild that is underway faces many obstacles ahead.

Before the fires, an estimated 8,500 affordable housing units were needed among all the cities and towns by 2022 to fulfill state housing laws. Most cities have not met those goals, but the county was on track to meet its allocation for 936 new homes in the unincorporated areas.

In 2017, Sonoma County set a goal to build 3,375 new homes in unincorporated areas by 2022. These numbers don’t include the estimated 10,000 homes, apartments, condos and other types of homes that have been approved across the county and cities, but not yet built.

The regional Plan Bay Area program, which went through extensive public review, projects thatSonoma County can expect 30,000 new households by 2040 (more than 20 years away). 

The 30,000 new units proposed by county and city planners appears to be derived primarily from economic projections in a study commissioned by the county’s economic development department. It is not entirely clear as there are several numbers being cited in different venues.

If we are to build 30,000 new homes in five years, the county and cities need to engage everyone in creating a vision and plan for how and where they meet the affordability challenge and how they will fit into our existing cities and towns.

Santa Rosa construction

Here is a recap of some of the housing policies underway at the county and several cities:

Santa Rosa: The Resilient City Code proposed for the city of Santa Rosa reduces permitting and public review provisions for three years for both new temporary and permanent housing and commercial construction. It covers citywide housing, offices, daycare facilities, senior care facilities, emergency shelters, mobile home parks, and hotels, lodges and bed and breakfasts.

Temporary structures can now be placed where needed for a maximum of five years with reduced permitting and staff review. The structures will need to be removed after five years.

The streamlining for permanent new development across the city is being revised in response to community objections over removal of most public and design review in favor of simply staff approval. Several organizations also called for requirements for affordability and to confine the streamlining to the downtown area and other priority development areas. Doing so would support city policies to focus most of its growth near jobs and transit. It will be finalized soon.

Santa Rosa Downtown Station Area Specific Plan

The City of Santa Rosa is planning to update the Downtown Station Area Specific Plan passed 10 years ago. The vision is to reinvigorate and implement the plan by increasing housing density and community benefits focused in the downtown near the SMART train, which could be a huge boon to the city and affordable housing. A public process will get underway later this year.

City Planner Patrick Streeter is providing a public briefing at 4 pm, Wednesday, May 2, at the Sonoma County Transportation and Land Use Coalition meeting at the Environmental Center 55A Ridgway, Santa Rosa.

Petaluma – Fees for Affordable Housing:The city of Petaluma recently held a public workshop to consider revising its affordable housing policies and housing impact fees. The city has built plenty of market-rate housing, but is falling far short on affordable housing. It needs to build 413 new affordable housing units below moderate level by 2022. The city is considering increasing fees for affordable in-lieu fees and commercial projects in order to build more low-income housing at its June 4 City Council meeting.

Cities Back Down on Requiring Developers to Provide Affordable Housing

Rohnert Park: Rohnert Park has a strong plan for its downtown that was developed through a lengthy public process and has in the past built hundreds of affordable units. But this approach was reversed, in part, when the Rohnert Park City Council recently abandoned requirements for affordable housing in the new downtown district that is slated for development in coming years.

The decision will specifically benefit a single developer, who recently bought a large undeveloped parcel that was once a State Farm facility. While the new developer has not submitted any plans to date, the Council approved a last-minute staff recommendation to eliminate the city’s 15 percent affordability requirement for the project.

Like other cities, Rohnert Park has fallen short of state-mandates for affordable housing, specifically extremely low and moderate. Most homes being built now are at market rate or above.

The planning staff claimed the need to remove affordable housing provisions was that the “concentration of affordable housing in the downtown, (is) well in excess of the City’s goals and potentially to the detriment of downtown development.” Only City Councilmember Jake Mackenzie voted against removing affordable housing requirements downtown.

In the same action, the city for the first time imposed housing impact fees on new rental housing and for-sale projects that will be held in a fund for future affordable housing in areas other than in the downtown district.

The Town of Windsor: In March, the Town of Windsor also rolled back affordability requirements for a developer for a cash payout of $2 million. The developer of the controversial Vintage Oaks project was allowed to rescind agreements to build low income or moderate housing in the 387-unit housing development, even though the town is falling far short of meeting its state mandate for affordable housing. City Council member Deb Fudge was the lone “no” vote, after strong public comment against the move.

Sonoma County Unincorporated Areas

Second Units on Small Rural Parcels: Recently, the Sonoma County Planning Commission signed-off on a proposed ordinance to allow as many as 2,000 large second units of up to 1,200 square feet (a doublewide mobile home) on small rural parcels of one acre or less that have septic systems and wells designed to serve one existing home. No affordability requirements were included, so they can be rented at market rate or above.

The smaller parcel size combined with the larger unit is pushing the public health and safety envelope for rural septic systems and wells, according to planning staff. Commissioners raised groundwater depletion and drinking water contamination as potential problems seen elsewhere in the county. Yet no environmental review is planned.

One of the commissioners noted that this action conflicts with longstanding county policies to direct new development into existing cities and towns. Since these second units would built far away from public transit, there will be more cars on the roads and with therefore more tailpipe emissions. If finalized by the supervisors, this action could result in 5,000 or more new residents that were never accounted for in the General Plan and can’t be counted toward state housing mandates.

An affordability component, increased parcel size and environmental review would help address these issues. The supervisors will review the ordinance soon. The ordinance is intended to align county policies with new state law that eases permitting of Accessory Dwelling Units - SEE:

Airport Specific Plan Update: The commercial and industrial area around the Sonoma County Airport is being eyed for new housing development by the county. This represents a significant change in use; the area is not zoned for housing. Last year before the fires, the county held public workshops to update the Airport Specific Plan using public grant funds. The grant was focused on improving traffic, bike and pedestrian access, not adding housing.

The area, once farmland, has been used for the airport and a business park since 1984. A controversial apartment project, Vineyard Creek was allowed off Airport Boulevard next to Highway 101 in about 2006 after extensive environmental review. The apartments get water from the Town of Windsor due to lack of sufficient groundwater.

Now that the SMART station at the airport is operating, the county is pressing to open the area up to more housing.

New public workshops focused on housing are getting underway, and public input is essential.

Read more here

Sonoma County Housing Recovery Bond

Unless financing is available for affordable housing, it will be hard for make room for our workforce, let alone teachers, nurses, and law enforcement officers. A coalition of non-profit housing developers, business, labor, environmental and community groups have developed a vision for a countywide housing bond that would provide as much as $300 million over 26 years for local funding for affordable rental and for-sale housing. Santa Rosa City Council member Jack Tibbetts and Supervisor Lynda Hopkins are leading the bond effort.

The funds would be used to leverage state and federal housing funds that require local matches. The draft bond policy calls for 75 percent of the funding to go to new rental housing for people making less than 80 percent of county median income (extremely low to low). The other 25 percent would help fund for-sale affordable housing for those earning up to 120 percent of county median (moderate) income. Farmworker housing would be eligible.

Projects funded would need to be within voter-approved Urban Growth Boundaries and unincorporated areas with sewer and water, not in community separators or greenbelts. Once on the ballot, the Housing Recovery Bond will require a 2/3 vote to pass.

If you are interested in getting involved in the housing conversation, contact Teri Shore, 707 575 3661, and your Supervisors & City Council.



May 8, 2018
LETTER SUBMITTED VIA EMAIL: 30,000 homes in 5 years? I read that county planners may ask the BOS to adopt a plan to add 30,000 homes to the cities/county in as little as 5 years. I hope the BOS realize how totally unrealistic this type of plan is and what the potential harm this recklessness will bring to our County. For simplicity here are just 2 reasons this type of plan is absurd: Infrastructure: Roads in the cities and county are not in alignment with this type of explosive growth. The narrows south of Petaluma are still at least 2 years from completion. How does anyone expect an addition of 60-80,000 vehicles will be accommodated? Cities and the Counties can barely keep up with current road repair much less additional stress caused by such an influx of vehicles. SMART is doing well but even it’s budget doesn’t include that explosive growth. Services: Where will the cities and counties come up with the money to build, much less hire, qualified staff for the additional police, fire, emergency etc. services necessary to accommodate such a rapid influx of people? The fires have put a severe strain on our county, not just the burn areas. Building and other costs have skyrocketed in the entire county. Rohnert Park, which is in your district, has had to delay the building of the Westside Fire Department because the cost of the project increased over $1.5 million since the fire rebuild efforts began. The County and Santa Rosa have both had to pare back their budgets because of fire costs. One thing that truly bothers me about this plan is that this fast pace of building gives too much discretionary control to one department without providing oversight to make sure decisions are made in the best interest for growth. We are having a difficult time now managing the permit processes. Increasing this problem will acerbate the situation and could likely cause irreparable harm to our cities and counties. I don’t understand how can anyone possibly believe that building 30,000 homes in 5 years is a good idea. This isn’t Southern California, home of homes. It’s Sonoma County, a beautiful place dedicated to agriculture and open space. We need a common sense approach, not one based on crisis and what is called the “fear trauma approach” to housing. Christina Meyer, Rohnert Park
- Vesta Copestakes
May 14, 2018
There is only one immediate solution. An AMNESTY PROGRAM for all pre-existing, unpermitted "granny units", "guest apartments", "garage units" etc. As San Francisco did over the past few years to help alleviate their housing crisis (with highly effective outcomes significantly increasing housing supply) so should SONOMA COUNTY PLANNING AND BUILDING DEPT!!! It is quite simple, existing "illegal" apartments/granny units etc (of which there are a significant amount) create housing supply and should be allowed to stay (not banned which reduces supply) subject to safety inspections by the building department (meeting a flexible code) and approval/permitting by planning possibly involving a de minimis permit fee. This is the best and most logical approach in the near term and would result in a dramatic increase in housing stock with almost immediate impact helping families and lower income folks who can not afford the McMansion budget required for most bew builds in the county. SONOMA COUNTY BUILDING AND PLANNING DEPT. need to get on this asap if we have any real chance of alleviating the current housing crisis. This is a brief look at San Francisco's approach that was highly successful .... and another proposal by the state At this point in our county's housing crisis reducing housing supply would be an extremely irresponsible thing for our officials to even consider let alone enforce.
- Robert jackman

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