Santa Rosa passes spending plan for housing bond

The fight over union labor levels on housing projects could spill over into the campaign.|

The Santa Rosa City Council on Tuesday unanimously supported a spending plan for the $124 million housing bond on the November ballot, but only after deadlocking on the contentious issue of how much union labor should be used on projects built with the money.

Labor groups had asked the council to pass guidelines requiring 30 percent of the jobs go to union workers - 20 percent union apprentices and 10 percent journeymen to train them - arguing that people building the housing should be able to afford to live in it.

But under pressure from business groups including those representing nonunion contractors, the council deadlocked 3-3 on the full 30 percent union requirement. Moments later it voted 6-0 to approve a plan earmarking 20 percent of the jobs for union apprentices - but no job guarantees for union journeymen.

The ideological impasse, which has been simmering for weeks, frustrated many of the council members and union members who attended the meeting. Mayor Chris Coursey said it was imperative that the disagreement not imperil the bond’s chances at the ballot box.

“We have failed to agree now as a group here in this room, but I think we can agree this ballot measure is good for everyone,” Coursey said after the vote.

It’s unclear how the compromise will sit with labor groups and whether it would fuel opposition to the bond, which would raise $124 million for a variety of affordable housing initiatives, including building new affordable housing, preserving existing housing and helping fire victims rebuild their homes.

“I’m deeply disappointed, but I’m not surprised,” said Jack Buckhorn, executive director of the North Bay Labor Council, which represents 30,000 workers in 71 unions.

Buckhorn and others argued that requiring 30 percent of workers to be unionized was simply a way to make sure workers were well trained, paid a good wage with benefits, and were able to live in a community that workers find increasingly difficult to afford.

“I never in a million years thought that we would be fighting at this point over the minimal standards that labor asked for their workforce,” Buckhorn said.

Buckhorn declined to say if the North Bay Labor Council would oppose the ballot measure, saying he needed to take the City Council’s action back to his board.

But some labor activists were outraged. Lisa Maldonado, who works for the California Nurses Association, berated Councilman Jack Tibbetts outside the hearing. She called him a “sellout,” accusing him of caving to threats by Keith Woods, executive director of the North Coast Builder’s Exchange, to run a campaign against the bond if the spending plan guaranteed 10 percent of the jobs would go to union journeymen.

But Tibbetts, as he did in the meeting, made it clear that any organized opposition would likely be able to torpedo the bond measure at the ballot box. Two-thirds of voters must approve the proposal in the Nov. 6 election for it to pass.

Tibbetts called it “unfortunate” that a “handful of local groups” had vowed to oppose the bond if it allocated 10 percent of the jobs to union journeymen, a position that forced his hand.

“When the opportunity to house upwards of 2,000 vulnerable families for as low as $900 per month (in rent) hangs in the balance, I cannot gamble with gamesmanship,” he said.

The percentage of union workers was just one of the spending guidelines and “community benefits” the council passed Tuesday, most with little debate. They included:

Prevailing wage: Projects funded with bond money would pay prevailing wages, except for some projects exempted by state law, such as low-income projects and sweat-equity projects.

Local hire: Sonoma County workers would receive priority for construction jobs, and then workers in surrounding adjoining counties would be tapped.

Breakdown: At least 75 percent of the money would be spent to provide or preserve housing for people earning less than 80 percent of the area median income, or $78,550 annually for a family of four. The remaining 25 percent would be used to help people who make up to 120 percent of median income, or $100,900. This chunk of money would be used to help fire victims rebuild or help first-time buyers afford a down payment.

Downtown: Projects located in the downtown and along transit corridors, areas known as priority development areas, would receive priority.

Greenbelts off limits: No projects funded with the money would be built in community separators or greenbelts, through land-use rules already prohibiting that.

Green projects: Projects that use climate-smart, all-electric or net zero construction methods would be prioritized.

Timing: Bond proceeds must be spent within 5 years of being allocated or be returned to the fund.

Oversight: An oversight committee would be charged with choosing which projects are funded and evaluating their effective use, including whether the labor provisions are being followed.

Maximizing leverage: The benefits outlined in the spending guidelines would not apply if they conflict with rules of other state or federal funds leveraged with the local money.

If approved, the bond would generate $124 million, paid for through property tax increases of $29 per $100,000 of assessed value over 30 years. That’s about $110 per year for a typical Santa Rosa home.

The city bond proposal follows the collapse of the $370 million countywide housing bond that ran afoul of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, which opposed the property tax increase as an unfair burden on rural property owners. The Sonoma County Alliance suggested regulatory reform might be a smarter approach.

Councilwoman Julie Combs urged labor groups and business groups to think more broadly about what the measure meant for the city.

“What we have before us is not only an affordable housing package. We have a housing package and job package and ultimately an economic stimulus package for our community,” Combs said.

In making his pitch to support prevailing wages, Councilman Chris Rogers said the high cost of living and housing in Sonoma County truly risked shredding the fabric of the community.

“For many of us, we are struggling to figure out how we can continue to be Santa Rosans,” Rogers said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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