Developer enlists 2017 law to advance stalled Sebastopol affordable housing project
An Idaho-based company has again submitted a plan to build a controversial 84-unit affordable housing project in Sebastopol, with half of the units reserved for agricultural workers and their families amid the Bay Area’s housing crunch.
The city’s Planning Department, as of the April 4 submission, now has 90 days to approve or reject the request.
The developer is being aided by a relatively novel state law that fast-tracks such projects in cities and counties that have failed to build enough new affordable housing as required by the state.
Citing an urgent need for local affordable housing — particularly in the west county — Sonoma County housing and farmworker rights advocates are adamant that the project move forward.
Local residents, though, worry that it will attract an influx of people and cars, causing pollution and traffic problems.
The Woodmark Apartments project is being developed by The Pacific Companies, a privately held group that specializes in multifamily dwellings.
Situated west of Sebastopol’s downtown along Bodega Avenue, it would be a 100% affordable housing development, with 48 units earmarked for current or retired farmworkers.
Since late 2019, the proposed complex has faced opposition from area residents. And in January 2021, the project was delayed after the city decided the developer’s application needed to be changed.
In response, Pacific Companies shifted gears and is now seeking approval using Senate Bill 35, a state law approved in 2017.
It requires jurisdictions that don’t meet home construction goals set by the state to approve or deny eligible affordable housing projects based solely on objective standards. The law also removes the need for a California Environmental Quality Act analysis.
The project also has been stalled for more than a year as Sebastopol consulted with the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria about the preservation of possible cultural artifacts that might be found on the site, according to farmworker advocate Zeke Guzman. He is president of the scholarship and cultural nonprofit Latinos Unidos del Condado de Sonoma.
The city couldn’t move forward with its review of the developer’s application until it finished with that consultation, which the tribe is legally entitled to, Sebastopol Planning Department staff said.
That process wrapped up on March 30 and the application for the Woodmark Apartments under SB 35 was filed five days later, Pacific Companies development partner Lauren Alexander said. No cultural artifacts were found at the proposed development site, she added.
“What I really want to happen is that the project is approved and we’re able to move forward,” Guzman said after learning the cultural artifact review was done. “People can’t afford to live here, and they’re moving out of the county.”
A streamlined process
Pacific Companies’ efforts mark the first time a developer has attempted to build affordable housing in Sebastopol using SB 35, said Kari Svanstrom, Sebastopol’s planning director.
The law simplifies building applications by establishing specific criteria developers must meet for approval, such as building on land zoned for residential use, or building multi-unit housing projects where at least half of the units will be allocated for low- and medium-income families.
And because Sebastopol — a west county city of 7,500 where, according to census data, white residents make up 75% of the community while Latino residents make up about 14% — has not met its required housing assessments, it falls under the auspices of this law.
As of Dec. 31, the city has issued building permits for 37 very-low-income housing units, exceeding its Regional Housing Needs Assessment target of 22 units, according to data provided by Svanstrom.
But of the 17 low-income housing units Sebastopol is required to build by early 2023, only 12 have been permitted.
The city also has surpassed its target of 19 moderate-income units by four.
Still, it is eight permits short of its 62-unit goal for above-moderate-income housing.
Guzman and his organization, along with California Human Development, a North Bay social services organization that works with low-income families and farmworkers, and Generation Housing, the Santa Rosa-based pro-housing advocacy group, agree that in Sonoma County there is a significant need for this housing project to move forward.
Streamlining the project would cut out subjective factors that could further slow the city’s approval process by several years, said Calum Weeks, Generation Housing’s policy director.
Those factors, he said, could take the form of a local Planning Commission’s concerns about the aesthetics of the project’s design or a neighboring property owner’s objections to a proposed two-story structure.