Affordable housing crisis in Sonoma County

Jill DiPaolo, a single mom who lives in temporary housing for formerly homeless people in Petaluma, has been searching for a permanent apartment for her and her 4-year-old son for months. Most days, the search is fruitless. On the rare day that DiPaolo finds a one-bedroom in her price range, her application is denied.

“I was looking at a place the other day, and someone actually told me ‘we’re not interested in any of that,’?” DiPaolo said, referring to her rental voucher she’s using to find housing. “There’s so few rentals here, so it’s insanely difficult to find a place for me and my son. I’m just trying to get back on my feet and I can’t find anything.”

Through the Petaluma-based nonprofit Committee on the Shelterless, which helps homeless people and others who might be teetering on the brink of homelessness find housing, DiPaolo has been in stable housing for the past two years. Now, her time is expiring and she must move on. But her search remains dreary: She’s looked at 60 apartments since January, and already this week she’s had at least one denial.

“She’s doing everything right - taking financial literacy courses, finding a job and going to school, but she has reached her two-year limit,” said Jed Heibel, vice president of programs for COTS. “But she can’t find anything. It’s a reflection of the scarcity of affordable housing in Sonoma County. So many people are being out-priced.”

DiPaolo’s story is not rare. Sonoma County hasn’t built enough affordable housing in recent years to keep pace with a growing population and loss of jobs after the Great Recession, which has largely contributed to a more vulnerable middle class. The population in unincorporated areas is expected to grow by more than 20,000 people by 2040, to more than 170,000.

That influx means scarcer resources for low-income people, and increased pressure on housing providers. But this week, the county Board of Supervisors outlined a new 10-year affordable housing plan structured around building new low-income units, as well as implementing housing programs that aim to help vulnerable populations - from the homeless to migrant farmworkers to the mentally ill.

The affordable housing strategy shined light on one of the most severe housing crisis to hit Sonoma County in decades. The vacancy rate for rentals is below 1.5 percent, homelessness has risen to nearly 10,000 people countywide, existing housing stock is threatened with possible conversion to vacation rentals, tenants of mobile home parks are being evicted, and meanwhile the possible closure of the Sonoma Developmental Center could send hundreds more people onto the streets. But the most aggressive county plan hatched in recent years, which would divert general fund monies into affordable housing programs, would fall short.

Even robust estimates would allocate only $200,000 annually from the county general fund to pay for the array of programs supervisors discussed Tuesday.

Funding would be focused in four key areas: retention of existing housing stock, protections for residents of mobile home parks, providing solutions to meet long-term needs for the homeless for such things as permanent supportive housing, and building new affordable housing.

Meanwhile, pressure on people like DiPaolo, who are trying to make ends meet, has never been greater.

“It’s pretty bad,” said Jane Riley, a housing planner with the county Permit and Resource Management Department. “It takes three full-time workers at minimum wage to afford a two-bedroom apartment right now.”

County estimates show that apartment rental rates are growing. A one bedroom is going for $836 per month, a two-bedroom for $1,154, and for a three bedroom, rent is around $1,851 each month. But in reality, those costs are much higher, housing advocates said.

“I concur with the findings that there is a great need for more affordable housing in the county,” said Chuck Cornell, executive director for Burbank Housing, which provides low-income housing in Sonoma County. “That is evidenced by our wait list, which last year was 7,000 for a portfolio of 2,800 units. Clearly there’s a giant backlog, but the real problem just comes down to money.”

The rental crisis is only the tip of the iceberg, supervisors and housing advocates said.

“It’s clear that rents are going up, and the demand for affordable housing is much higher than the supply,” Supervisor Efren Carrillo said.

Under state law, each city in Sonoma County as well as unincorporated areas must plan new housing for low-income people. Since 2007, the county has built 1,102 out of 1,363 units, and an additional 936 units are called for in the next decade. But that comes nowhere near meeting the need, supervisors and advocates said.

“Those numbers don’t even come close to reflecting the actual need out there,” Supervisor Shirlee Zane said. “We have to do more.”

Housing advocates said, in the end, the difference between planning for affordable housing and implementing it simply comes down to money.

“We would like to see more, because we think the state requirement numbers are too low,” said David Grabill, a lawyer who sued Sonoma County in 1998 for inadequate affordable housing policies outlined in the general plan. “But the biggest thing now is the money - how we’re going to pay for low-income housing and programs that make housing more affordable.”

Grabill said the new housing plan was a needed next step.

When Gov. Jerry Brown in 2011 dissolved redevelopment agencies, Sonoma County, along with more than 400 local governments throughout California lost the major funding mechanism for affordable housing.

But supervisors Tuesday showed unanimous support for a policy to close that gap by redirecting general fund dollars back into building new low-income housing and investing in affordable housing programs, such as issuing housing vouchers or building single-room-occupancy hotels on empty county land. Other proposals included providing yearlong beds for farmworkers, tightening restrictions against mobile home owners and others who want to sell their homes at today’s market rate, a process that has resulted in evictions.

Supervisor David Rabbitt said the county’s unincorporated areas represent opportunities for new low-income housing.

“There are unique areas in our unincorporated parts to capitalize on more affordable housing,” Rabbitt said. “We need to look at our unique opportunity as a county. Without redevelopment, we’re in a whole new world.”

The board agreed.

“This is just crazy, we have to come up with more creative solutions, we have to think outside of the box,” Zane said. “We have a piece of paper, a legal document - but we have to go further.”

Supervisors also talked about the importance of providing housing for the homeless, people with mental health issues or substance abuse problems.

“This area has had a 320 percent increase in homelessness amongst youth in five years - it’s disgraceful,” Zane said. “There are buildings out there that we can look at to turn into SROs - for years we’ve been talking about this stuff.”

Other proposals outlined included fast-tracking permitting processes for developers as well as increasing shelters and transitional housing. County programs that serve homeless people and people who could become homeless are between 80 percent and 90 percent full.

“I am homeless, and for me it’s a daily struggle,” said Charlene Love, who travels from shelter to shelter. “I’m tired, I want to sit down, I’m tired of moving, but there is no housing for me.”

Supervisors, however, fell short of providing any real funding for affordable housing.

The county planning commission this spring recommended using 20 percent of a portion of Sonoma County’s general fund called “Reinvestment and Revitalization” money. But supervisors simply voiced support to divert general monies to affordable housing programs. A more specific plan must be approved, first by the state, then finalized by the county, by the end of the year.

Even if funds are diverted, proposals floated Tuesday would be woefully underfunded. This year alone, little more than $1 million is available in tax increment dollars, and even the most robust allocation - a proposed ?20 percent - would not be enough, housing advocates said. But housing planners said the county needs to start somewhere.

“We are asking for a new annual commitment to replace what we’ve lost because of redevelopment and other losses of state and general funds,” Riley said.

Meanwhile, DiPaolo continues her search. “The biggest thing this housing will do is provide a sense of security for my son ­- a stable house for when he starts kindergarten.”

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