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Sonoma County officials, builders talk affordable housing

Calling the lack of affordable housing a crisis, public officials, housing advocates and construction industry leaders gathered Thursday in Santa Rosa to consider how to build new subsidized units in Sonoma County.

While representatives of all three sectors agreed something needs to be done to build more housing for low- and moderate-income residents, it quickly became clear there is not yet consensus on how to pay for it.

The discussion at the North Coast Builders Exchange was permeated with uncertainty about how much county residents will support new development of either affordable or market-rate housing. In conversations before and after the scheduled presentations, several people referenced a recent comment to The Press Democrat by Gov. Jerry Brown, who tersely summed up the county’s situation: “The problem is you don’t want housing up there.”

Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane expressed optimism about both Thursday’s gathering and about the prospect of getting more affordable units built.

“We’ve started the conversation of how we’re going to address the crisis of the housing shortage,” said Zane, who hosted the workshop with the mayors of Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park.

Asked where the money would come from to build new units, Zane responded, “That’s the million- dollar question.” She quickly revised that comment to say it actually is a multimillion-dollar question.

Possible funding sources could include raising taxes on hotel visitors and increasing taxes on real estate transactions, according to several members of the panel, which included a housing advocate and representatives from local government.

Two publicly owned sites in Santa Rosa were identified as potential locations for housing projects: the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit parcels in downtown and the county properties along Chanate Road near the closed Sutter Hospital.

But experts say the county needs far more housing units than can be constructed on those two sites.

At year’s end, 97.2 percent of the county’s apartments were occupied, a level that property managers consider essentially the same as full occupancy. Sonoma County’s apartment rents have risen at a faster pace than for most of the nation, climbing nearly 30 percent in three years to an average of $1,567.

Housing experts say rents have risen due to strong demand and a relative lack of all types of housing. The seven-year downturn in home construction has exacerbated the shortage, especially as businesses have increased hiring in recent years.

Thursday’s workshop kicked off a series of discussions about how to create housing in Sonoma County. A regional conference is slated for May, sponsored by North Bay employers who are concerned about the increasing difficulty in finding housing for their workers.

The demand for housing was illustrated vividly last month, when more than 175 people lined up for a chance to obtain one of the 42 affordable units at the Tierra Springs Apartments development in Santa Rosa. Some of the people camped out for two nights, hoping that could allow them to pay less than half what it would cost for a similar market-rate unit. The complex is expected to be completed in May.

An unusually large number of residents in Sonoma County must spend nearly half of their income on housing and transportation, Kathleen Kane, executive director of the Sonoma County Community Development Commission, told the audience of more than 80 people Thursday.

Eighty-three percent of county residents spend more than 45 percent of their income for those two expenses. That compares with 43 percent of residents in New York, 56 percent in Los Angeles, 59 percent in San Francisco and 78 percent in Washington, D.C.

Those other communities have higher housing costs, Zane later explained, but they also have higher median incomes.

Chuck Cornell, executive director for the nonprofit builder Burbank Housing, asked the workshop’s panel whether both cities and the county would be willing to raise new revenue needed for local housing projects to compete for allocations of federal housing tax credits - currently a crucial financial mechanism for subsidized housing. Projects can require between $70,000 and $100,000 an apartment in local funds.

No one from the panel responded to his question.

Cornell later said he believes council members and county supervisors want more housing built. But he remains skeptical that the general public will support spending more for affordable apartments.

Bob Glover, executive officer of the Building Industry Association of the Bay Area, a Walnut Creek-based trade group, said strong public opposition in past housing battles around the Bay Area should make housing advocates pause.

“If there’s anything they hate more than new housing,” Glover said, “it’s new affordable housing.”

However, Linda Mandolini, president of nonprofit Eden Housing in Hayward, said Sonoma County has an advantage over some parts of the Bay Area. A large and growing number of employers in Sonoma County understand the need for more housing for their workers, she said.

And Santa Rosa Mayor John Sawyer told the audience that he’s having different types of conversations about housing with constituents these days. In contrast to past years, he’s no longer hearing concerns about traffic, growth and “the things that people used to wring their hands about.”

Instead, Sawyer said, “I’m hearing about the need to build homes.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit.

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