Sonoma County's home building industry looks like it's finally shaking off the hangover of the past six years.
Local contractors pulled significantly more new home permits in 2013, and at least two major subdivisions in Rohnert Park are expected to start taking shape this year.
However, the near-term outlook remains lackluster for construction of single-family homes, and many predict that building activity will remain subdued when compared to the pace of the past quarter-century. Builders foresee fewer construction jobs and a limited supply of new homes for years to come.
Last year, county builders obtained permits to construct 1,025 housing units, the most since 2007, according to the California Homebuilding Foundation in Sacramento. In comparison, 597 permits were issued in 2012.
However, more than 70 percent of last year's new units were in multi-family projects, primarily two apartment complexes in Rohnert Park and Santa Rosa. Only 293 permits were issued for single-family homes, an increase of 9 percent from 2012.
"It's definitely better than it's been in the past six or seven years," said Keith Woods, chief executive officer at the North Coast Builders Exchange, a Santa Rosa trade group. "But we're not back to anywhere near where we were a decade ago."
Santa Rosa officials also reported an uptick in building activity. The number of permits issued by the city doubled to 488 new units, with the increase due entirely to new multi-family projects like apartments and condominiums.
In Mendocino County, the total number of permits for new single-family houses rose by 22 units to 92, according to the homebuilding foundation. There have been no multi-family housing complexes built there in the past two years.
In Lake County, the number of single-family home permits increased by 17 units to 50. However, no multi-family units were built there last year, compared to 50 in 2012.
Over the past 25 years, Sonoma County and its cities have issued an average of 2,000 new home permits a year. The vast majority of the permits were for single-family homes.
But the industry has seen nothing if not booms and busts. In 1989, builders took out 4,500 permits as the county's average home price jumped 170 percent in the decade to $189,000.
Ten years later, builders would obtain just 430 permits in 2009 amid a historic housing market crash. That February, the county's median price fell to a low of $305,000 after reaching a record high of $619,000 in August 2005.
Home prices since have rebounded, and the county median price last month stood at $449,825.
But the county still has about 6,000 fewer construction workers compared to 2007. Last summer, construction jobs peaked in August and September at 9,200, according to the state Employment Development Department.
Over the past quarter-century, two themes have repeatedly surfaced in discussions about the county's housing industry.
The first involves a worry about too much growth, a fear that new subdivisions are outstripping the capacity of county roads, utilities and other municipal services. Such worries over the years led to voter-approved urban growth boundaries that confine housing projects within cities.
But the second theme involves concerns about how growth restrictions and increasing regulations are driving up the cost of housing and making homes too expensive for the next generation.
Builders note the county has one of the tightest apartment vacancy rates in the nation. They also maintain that the demand for housing is likely to intensify as employment increases in the coming years.
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