Developer enlists 2017 law to advance stalled Sebastopol affordable housing project

The 84-unit, 100% affordable housing development would set aside half of its units for current or retired farmworkers. Sonoma County housing and farmworker advocates say there is an urgent need for this housing project to move forward.|

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.

Critics of SB 35 contend it strips local control over proposed housing developments. Weeks, though, believes the law is the stick needed to poke cities into action that aren’t acting swiftly enough to build much-needed housing.

“The objections that are being raised, I think are largely centered around attempts to advance some of the strong environmental values that Sebastopol has, which there is nothing inherently wrong with,” Weeks said. “But our issue is that we can’t afford to delay housing and we can’t reduce the number of units because we are in a housing crisis.”

‘The wrong site’

Unconvinced, nearly 300 Sebastopol residents have signed a petition opposing the development.

Submitted to the city in March 2021, public records show, the petition was delivered a month after Pacific Communities decided to pursue building approval under SB 35.

Among the organizers behind the petition is Jacque Lefler, a 31-year resident of the Bears Meadow neighborhood just east of the proposed Woodmark Apartments site.

Her primary concerns have to do with the potential ripple effects caused by the project’s size — more traffic on an already congested Bodega Avenue, car pollution, excess cars parked on neighboring side streets, and an increase in noise.

Emergency evacuations out of the town, where the one-lane Bodega Avenue serves as a major artery, might also be complicated by the addition of more people, Lefler added.

She is frustrated by the developer’s use of SB 35 to try to move the project on despite local opposition.

“It’s sort of like they push their way into little communities with these huge projects with no regard on what the impact on the community will be,” Lefler said.

Marcia Lavine, 75, said she too is concerned about the impact the high-density project would have on traffic, particularly on narrow side roads where sidewalks aren’t always present and cars already have to pull over to let other vehicles pass in the opposite direction.

Those streets may become much busier as people try to avoid Bodega Avenue, she said.

She also worries for the row of large heritage trees rooted in the back of her Washington Avenue home, which butts up against the northern end of the proposed development.

“It’s the wrong site for a project like this,” Lavine said.

A long way to go

Traffic and environmental concerns aren’t the only reasons people are objecting to the project, according to Guzman.

Pointing to public comments made by nearby residents and members of the city’s Design Review Board, he believes underlying racial bias fuels their unwillingness.

Guzman said a Design Review Board member worried that multiple people might try to cram into a one-bedroom unit. He said he believes the person made that statement because half of the project’s units would be set aside for local farmworkers, who are predominately Latino.

Guzman said most of the farmworkers who currently tend to the agricultural land surrounding Sebastopol, as well as other parts of the west county, must commute from Santa Rosa or farther to reach their jobs because there’s no affordable housing near where they work.

The Woodmark Apartments project would mean they’d live nearby, reducing their travel times and their expenses, he said.

“Our communities have to show that there is a level of responsibility to provide housing for those people who have built a multibillion-dollar industry” in this region, he added, referring to low-wage hospitality and wine industry workers.

“They don’t want brown people living there,” he said. “What’s sad (is that) we want the sweat of the farmworkers, but we don’t want to help take care of them.”

The one-, two- and three-bedroom units of the Woodmark project would be priced for families with incomes ranging between 30% and 60% of Sonoma County’s Area Median Income, Alexander said.

That medium income translates into $103,300 annually for a family of four, according to the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development. Families meeting that income range would not be charged more than 30% of their annual wages for rent, Alexander said.

Lefler and Lavine deny that race is an issue. Instead, they say they have issues with the development plan itself.

Small space, big worries

Anabel Garcia, 41, has lived in Sonoma County for 21 years and works as a day laborer, though she has 10 years of experience picking grapes at local vineyards, she said.

The area’s high rents have forced her and her family, which is made up of her husband, two children and father-in-law, into a two-bedroom apartment in Santa Rosa. Both her father-in-law and husband are farmworkers, Garcia said.

Sharing the small space comes with sacrifices: little privacy, no room for visitors and the constant worry of being ticketed for parking in the street past the posted time limit, she said.

While she would be interested in living in Sebastopol, which is closer to the Graton Day Labor Center where she goes to find work, Garcia said co-workers have warned her of the city’s high rents. She said she has cleaned studio apartments in the city — where the rent is $1,800 a month.

In addition, she said finding affordable housing has been made more complicated because she doesn’t have a Social Security number, which is sometimes a requirement to submit a housing application.

“We’re worried,” Garcia said. “In the month of September, the rent changes.”

Svanstrom, Sebastopol’s planning director, said her department will decide if the project wins approval using the criteria set out by SB 35.

Alexander said she believes the city “will have a hard time” finding a reason to reject the development under the requirements laid out by SB 35. She was pleased to see the project move forward, she said.

“I’ve been working on this project for over three years, so I’m thrilled to be able to submit an application,” she said. “We’ve worked very hard to make sure this project meets all the standards that the city has.”

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or On Twitter @nashellytweets.

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