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Affordable housing faces ‘visceral opposition’ in Sonoma County, supervisor says

Supervisors and city councils have approved or are in the process of approving many affordable housing projects for low- or very-low income residents throughout Sonoma County.

But that’s not enough, says Supervisor James Gore, who represents northern Sonoma County, which includes Cloverdale, which has a population that’s nearly 40% Latino and has a lower median income than most of the county.

During a hearing for a SMART station in the Sonoma County Airport area that had a workforce housing component, the idea received “not just blowback but visceral opposition,” Gore recalled.

“The big thing is how we are going to provide more affordable housing. One of the reasons we don’t have a lot of high-density housing is … when people of means have a project proposed in their neighborhood and they oppose it vociferously, some supervisors buckle under the pressure,” he said in a recent phone interview.

Gore said the board will propose zoning an area for affordable housing, and when it goes before the Design Review Board, people testify ‘I’m for affordable housing but not here.’ They are afraid of change. They fear low-income solutions near them.”

The county’s general plan, created in the 1970s, has evolved into a compact to stop more urban and suburban growth and concentrate on infill housing. The county has done that, but has failed to build up, he said.

“The reality is that in Sonoma County we are faced with a workforce that can’t afford housing, and we have to be willing to inconvenience ourselves to make space for not just our low-income workers, but for our youth who are coming into the workforce,” Gore said. “A big issue is how we can survive the transition in the next five to 10 years.”

He has heard about the issue of poor-quality housing conditions for lower-wage workers from farmworker advocate Zeke Guzman and Cloverdale Mayor Marta Cruz, he said. “Generally the kind of things we are talking about are not just substandard, they could be considered inhumane.”

Ironically, he points out, a group called Sonoma Independent has gathered petitions and come to Board of Supervisors’ meetings to accuse Permit Sonoma, the county’s planning and code enforcement arm, of “putting people out on the streets. They say you are displacing people when you enforce the codes,” he said.

One recently proposed affordable housing project is in Cloverdale on Asti Road, by developer Pacific West Communities. It’s now being scrutinized by the city Planning Commission. The Cloverdale Alexander Valley Apartments would be a 75-unit complex, 37 of them funded by the USDA, and would serve farmworkers and others who have low incomes.

Even if it’s built, there could be problems with getting water connections approved because of a state moratorium on new hookups, according to the city’s assistant city manager, Kevin Thompson.

During public comments before the commission on Nov. 2, concerns were raised by two speakers about the impact the new families would have on the health system and the school district.

Debra Howe, CEO of Alexander Valley Health Care, asked at the hearing if the developer could include more units that are affordable but for people who make a moderate income. City Attorney Jose Sanchez told her the only way that could happen would be if the council passed a new ordinance. Besides, he told her, moderate-income units don’t qualify for the tax credits that the city needs to support the projects.

“My fear here is … the burden of the cost of providing services,” Howe told the commission. “We could end up with a completely low-income community, and I don’t know if that’s in the community’s best interest.”

Cloverdale Unified School District Superintendent Betha MacClain said the district has told the developer it doesn’t have the capacity to serve the children that would live in the apartments. She urged the commission, which will pass on its recommendation to the City Council, to make its support conditional on the developer mitigating some of the impacts of the new housing.

“We don’t see any plans for safe routes to school. We don’t see any provisions for parks or soccer fields,” she said, pointing out that the district is one of the few entities in the town that provides a place for kids to play.

“Our facilities are aging … We have to expand our campus or tear down our portable classrooms and put in new classrooms,” McClain also told the commission. She said the cost to the district would be about $1 million per classroom.

Guzman, president of Latinos Unidos, told the commission the apartments would help out struggling workers in the vineyards, retail and hospitality industries.

“I really think that as human beings, it’s really essential that we take care of the housing needs of the people who are essential and keep our economy going,” he said.

Gore said the only way to solve “what people consider to be an intractable problem” is for the county and cities to work with local groups and activists.

“We have already spent $10 million on rent subsidies. We’re going to keep leaning in and find solutions,” he said. “I’m in favor of finding solutions and building affordable housing even if it pisses people off.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kathleen Coates at kathleen.coates@pressdemocrat.com.

Editor’s note: The names of the developer of the Alexander Valley Apartments and the Cloverdale city attorney have been corrected.

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