Fires fuel a daunting push to solve Sonoma County housing crisis
As it emerged from the Great Recession and a moribund housing market, Sonoma County in 2011 needed seven years to build nearly 5,000 new homes.
The fires of October wiped a greater number of houses and apartments off the map here in a single day.
The unprecedented disaster deepened an existing housing crisis and fueled calls by local officials to dramatically accelerate the pace of new home construction - perhaps to a level never before seen in the county, even in the decadeslong building boom following World War II.
By two recent estimates, a yawning gap exists between the housing stock the county had before the fires - about 208,000 homes, apartments and other units - and what is needed to keep the economy growing and to comfortably house a wide range of workers and families.
It could be as high as 30,000 units - equivalent to what exists in Rohnert Park, Windsor and Sebastopol - according to county supervisors, who set that figure as an ambitious five-year building target that would include both the burn areas and surrounding communities.
“We are eroding the character of our county by not allowing people who work here to live here and be a part of the community,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman James Gore. The county, he said, came up with its estimate of 30,000 homes “not as a hopeful aspiration, but as an analysis of how much we're short from a healthy housing market.”
But some leaders in the local building and real estate industry say there is no conceivable way for the county to build 6,000 houses and apartments a year, equivalent to completing 16 homes a day. The obstacles, builders say, include insufficient levels of labor, materials and projects ready to go.
For most of the past decade, contractors in the county have built 700 or fewer units a year, builders note.
“The likelihood is that we will be woefully short of that (30,000 units) for a number of reasons out of our control,” said Keith Woods, chief executive officer at the North Coast Builders Exchange, a Santa Rosa trade group.
In discussing what can be done, both city and county officials have suggested that hundreds of new multi-family units could be built on existing downtown parking lots in Santa Rosa; near SMART train stations; and on the current Santa Rosa City Hall and Sonoma County government campus, which could be freed up by consolidating two headquarters into one.
Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey said such “game changing” projects should be considered because the housing shortage threatens to undermine the local economy, pushing out current residents and discouraging businesses and workers from moving to the area.
“We talk about it as a crisis,” Coursey said, “and it is a critical issue for us to be tackling right now.”
To bolster their case, county officials this month obtained a second estimate from an outside economics firm that concluded the county should build 26,000 new housing units by 2020. The extra units are needed to deal with “employment growth, fire losses and overcrowding,” according to a report from Los Angeles-based Beacon Economics.
To spur a building boom, county voters this November may be asked to tax themselves for a slice of the hundreds of millions of dollars that proponents here hope to raise for subsidized, or affordable, housing projects.
The pace of recovery
The increased efforts come as the outlook has grown starker for a speedy recovery in neighborhoods burned by the October wildfires. Four months after the disaster, many politicians, builders and neighborhood leaders expressed worry that large numbers of fire survivors aren't going to rebuild, often because their homes were underinsured.
Building leaders also warn the pace of recovery will be hampered by scarce resources, especially a limited pool of construction workers.
“I'm telling people this is a decadelong process,” Woods said. “Right now the magnitude of the disaster is at the root of all our problems.”
Based on his conversations with potential builders, Woods predicted the county is on track to rebuild about 3,500 of the 5,300 burned homes in six years.
Similar sobering assessments on the pace of new construction have come from many in the building and real estate community, who for years encouraged local officials to allow more housing projects.
Some questioned whether the large goals and wide-ranging explorations ultimately will boost or drag down the efforts for new homes.
“I fear that there is too much unfocused discussion and not enough concentration on what can be done now and in the near future,” said Santa Rosa developer Hugh Futrell. “As a community we've done far too much envisioning and not enough building.”