Law has streamlined hundreds of affordable housing units in Sonoma County
Five hundred and twelve.
That’s how many affordable housing units have been approved in Sonoma County under state Senate Bill 35, a 2017 law that made it easier for developers to get entitlements to build below-market rate, multi-unit housing.
Many say the law — which allows developers to bypass certain steps in the process of getting their approvals — is a powerful means to create sorely needed affordable housing for residents being priced out of the county.
In Santa Rosa, for example, four approved SB 35 projects with a combined 336 units of affordable housing represent about a quarter of the affordable units completed within the past two years, currently under construction or approved and pending construction in the city.
“Overall, SB 35 has been an incredibly effective tool when it comes to streamlining affordable housing development in Sonoma County,” said Calum Weeks, policy director of Generation Housing, a North Bay affordable housing research and advocacy group.
The law, which took effect in 2018 and is scheduled to expire in 2026, does have features that can be problematic, some say, especially that it in many ways cuts out the public’s input over important land-use decisions.
“There’s the issue of local control,” said Kari Svanstrom, Sebastopol’s planning director.
Svanstrom said Woodmark Apartments, a controversial Bodega Avenue housing development with half its 84 affordable units set aside for farmworkers, would have been developed with “a little bit more sensitivity to the existing site” if it had gone through the traditional planning and public hearing process.
The law would be extended into perpetuity under SB 423, a bill introduced by state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, that is now in the California Senate’s Appropriations Committee. Wiener also authored SB 35.
Under SB 35, in addition to the four projects approved in Santa Rosa and the Woodmark Apartments, two projects in Petaluma, with a combined 92 units, have been approved. Meanwhile in Cotati, an SB 35 project with 70 units is awaiting approval.
By comparison, San Francisco has approved 21 SB 35 projects since 2018, with a combined total of 2,457 affordable units, according to the city’s planning division.
However, San Francisco is almost completely urban, while Sonoma County is just 48% urban and suburban, according to the U.S. Census, limiting the type of land that can be developed under SB 35.
It’s hard to say for certain at what stage the Sonoma County projects would be in now without SB 35 (none are completed yet and at least one is awaiting building permits). But developers, planning officials and housing advocates say that approvals that might otherwise have taken years and been much more expensive undoubtedly progressed much more rapidly.
MidPen Housing, one of the region’s largest affordable housing developers, is currently under construction on 414 Petaluma, 43 units of affordable housing on Petaluma Boulevard North.
It bought the property in 2019 foreseeing the potential for it to be developed under SB 35, said Nevada Merriman, MidPen’s director of policy.
“SB 35 is a very powerful tool, and if your project meets the criteria, then there's a lot of reasons why you would want to go that route,” she said.
The Petaluma project was first approved in June 2020, and then, after MidPen applied in 2021 to add two more units, again in June 2021. It’s 30% through construction now, Merriman said.
The law led to “a substantial savings of time and money” — at least a year in getting entitlements and a minimum of $250,000 on environmental reports, Merriman said. “Anything that either makes that a shorter time frame or less expensive reduces the barrier to building affordable housing.”
MidPen is also developing the 98-unit Mahonia Glen project on Highway 12 in Santa Rosa.
Freebird Development Co. is behind one of the four approved Santa Rosa SB-35 projects: the 61-unit South Park Commons now under construction.
Freebird founder and CEO, Robin Zimbler, said the law made it easier to line up financing, always a key hurdle to development. That makes it faster to turn vacant land that is costing money in taxes, insurance and maintenance into income-generating property.
“To make affordable housing pencil out, you need a lot of different subsidy sources,” said Zimbler. Typically those sources offer just one opportunity to apply for financing a year, she said, and developers need entitlements in hand in order to apply.
“By using SB 35, you're definitely able to shave time off of your predevelopment schedule … because it allows you to apply for financing that much sooner as opposed to a project where your entitlements take a year or two and you're then having to push back all of your funding applications as well,” Zimbler said.
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