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State bills could spur construction and ease housing shortage in North Bay, developers and advocates say

In Sonoma County and across California, housing costs continue to climb beyond the reach of many residents.

Increasingly, policymakers have pointed to small-scale, “naturally affordable” homes as a key solution. Last month, California’s Legislature acted on that conviction and advanced two controversial bills aimed at making it easier to build modest single-family homes, duplexes and downsized apartment buildings throughout the state.

Local housing advocates and developers are praising the measures as incremental but significant steps toward alleviating the North Bay’s affordable housing shortage.

“This is definitely a statement to local jurisdictions that the state means business on housing,” said Jen Klose, director of Sonoma County advocacy group Generation Housing. “It’s not enough, but it’s a great start.”

If signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom, the new bills — the latest piecemeal housing legislation following a series of failed attempts to pass more sweeping measures — could roll back some local control over city and county zoning ordinances in the state. Such land-use laws give local governments broad control over the scale and location of different kinds of developments.

Many community groups are urging Newsom to veto both bills, arguing the proposed laws only serve the interest of developers, while also damaging the character of local neighborhoods and having a detrimental impact on the environment.

“(The bills) would apply the failed theories of trickle-down economics to California’s housing affordability crisis,” said San Francisco-based group Livable California in a letter Assemblywoman Aguiar-Curry, D-Winters, who voted for both measures.

Newsom has not commented directly on the bills, but housing advocates and experts told The Press Democrat they’re confident he will eventually sign them. He has until Oct. 10, after the this month’s contentious recall election, to make his decision.

State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, who voted for both bills, sees them as an extension of the state’s ongoing commitments to affordable housing, including the $10.3 billion earmarked to build homes for low-income occupants in Newsom’s latest approved state budget.

“A lot of folks talk about the affordable housing crisis, but it’s now time to act on the affordable housing crisis,” McGuire said.

One of the bills, known as S.B. 9, which McGuire co-authored, takes aim at areas zoned only for single-family homes. The restrictive zoning is described by Klose and other advocates as contributing to racial segregation locally and across the country because they have long priced disadvantaged communities out of many suburban areas.

To spur denser development in those neighborhoods, the bill would permit most homeowners to split their property in half and build or convert up to two homes on each of the lots, if space allows. That means permitting as many as four homes in areas that currently only allow one.

Property owners would be free to rent or sell homes or duplexes on either lot created in the split. To prevent speculation by investors, the bill would require a homeowner to live on the property for three years once they get approval to divide a lot.

The bill also would streamline approvals for new construction on the lots, while leaving local governments in control over many height, scale and design standards. Homeowners in designated historic districts or “environmentally sensitive” areas including fire hazard zones, however, may not eligible under the measure.

Amy Christopherson Bolten, director of operations at Santa Rosa-based Christopherson Builders, said Sonoma County has a significant number of single-family zoned properties with plenty of space to accommodate additional homes. Bolten said the bill could entice property owners to pursue multi-home projects, which can be more financially viable than building just one single-family home.

“You could double the housing stock and make it more affordable,” Bolten said.

“Market feasible” new North Bay homes

A UC Berkeley analysis has found that S.B. 9 would clear the way for around 16,000 new homes that would be “market feasible,” or more affordable, to rent or sell in Sonoma County.

Lake County: 1,000

Marin County: 9,500

Mendocino County: 1,500

Napa County: 5,000

Solano County: 8,500

Sonoma County: 16,500

North Bay total: 37,000

Source: Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley

An analysis by UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation found S.B. 9 would clear the way for around 16,000 new homes that would be “market feasible” to rent or sell in Sonoma County. That’s more than the roughly 14,000 homes the state is set to require the county approve between 2023 to 2031.

Of course, it remains to be seen how many property owners would actually take advantage of the potential new rules. But Stephen Marshall, founder of Sonoma Manufactured Homes, which specializes in building prefabricated homes, described the prospect of upzoning single-family properties as an “obvious gold rush."

Marshall is concerned his daughter in her early 20s can’t afford to buy a home in the Bay Area or Sonoma County, where the median price of a single-family home reached a record of $825,000 in June. He’s hopeful that if the bill becomes law, he could build a home for her on his property. He expects many local homeowners would be interested in doing the same.

“That’s an investment and a great way for young people to get started,” Marshall said. “(It would be) a great boon for the next generation.”

The other housing bill passed by the Legislature, S.B. 10, would give local governments the option to bypass much of the lengthy approval process for projects up to 10 units in urban districts and “transit-rich” areas. The bill would also allow local officials to shield planned developments from legal challenges stemming from environmental reviews, which developers claim have become cudgels for neighbors who oppose any new development in their communities.

“It’s a great thing for developers, because when you're doing an (urban) project, so often you get tangled up in super-expensive litigation,” said Kirstie Franceschi, secretary-treasurer of the Council of Infill Builders, a group advocating for denser home building, and a development manager at Codding Enterprises in Santa Rosa.

But Franceschi added that since the bill only applies for smaller complexes, some developers may have trouble finding the necessary financing to make a new project profitable.

Efren Carrillo, a vice president of residential development at Burbank Housing, said S.B. 10 wouldn’t change much for the nonprofit, which builds price-restricted housing for low- and mid-income North Bay residents. That’s because most of Burbank’s projects have at least 30 units to make them more attractive to officials who award developments crucial federal tax incentives.

Still, Carrillo applauded the bill, saying it aligns with many of the pro-housing policies already being adopting or considered by local governments, such as incentivizing in-law units or reducing permitting fees for low-income projects.

“We need to celebrate the small wins and continue to press ahead and do more,” he said.

Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Rogers, a staunch advocate for housing growth, said he expects his city to consider opting in to S.B. 10 should it becomes law. Rogers acknowledged there would be strong pushback from community members concerned about neighborhood integrity. But he said that’s not necessarily reason to reject the proposed rules.

“I don’t think you’re going to see any of these bills by themselves ‘destroy the character of the community,’” Rogers said. “But it will push local governments to be more permissive about housing.”

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian

Ethan Varian

Housing and homelessness, The Press Democrat 

I've lived in California for most of my life, and it's hard for me to remember when the state hasn't been in a housing crisis. Here in Sonoma County, sharply rising housing costs and increasing homelessness are reshaping what was long considered the Bay Area’s “affordable” region. As The Press Democrat’s housing and homelessness reporter, I aim to cover how officials, advocates, developers and residents are reacting to and experiencing the ongoing crisis.

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