Sonoma County housing bond seen by supporters as way to bolster affordable stock

A proposed ballot measure would ask residents to support a tax increase to help spur affordable housing development.|

Sonoma County voters may be asked this fall to support a massive housing bond aimed at solving a housing crisis exacerbated by the devastating October wildfires.

Details of the proposed measure are still being worked out, but supporters are suggesting a number north of $300 million would be needed to make a sizable dent in the shortage of affordable housing in the county.

“If this county does not pass an affordable housing bond now, I don’t think it ever will,” said Santa Rosa City Councilman Jack Tibbetts. “I think that will say a lot about who we are as a community.”

Tibbetts, who has emerged as a leader in the effort, said he’s eying a number between $300 million and $400 million. A survey conducted in July and again in January used ?$370 million.

The local proposal comes as California voters this November face a decision on a $4 billion housing bond meant to fund low-income developments and subsidize home loans for California veterans.

Various Bay Area counties have passed housing bonds of their own in recent years. In 2016 alone, voter-approved measures in Santa Clara, Alameda and San Francisco authorized up to $950 million, $580 million and $261 million for affordable housing, respectively.

The housing crisis that preceded the fires in Sonoma County has only deepened in their wake, with nearly 5,300 homes destroyed, a 1 percent vacancy rate effectively plunging to zero and the median single-family home now selling for $670,000.

Proponents of a local “housing recovery bond” have been meeting often in recent weeks, aware that they’ll need to get support from county supervisors in coming months to get the issue on the November ballot.

The group, which has about $30,000 in donations and a dozen community leaders on its executive committee, held a public meeting two weeks ago attended by about 50 people in Roseland. Draft ballot language is in the works, and should be out in coming weeks or sooner, Tibbetts said.

Peter Rumble, the new executive director of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber of Commerce, said his organization hasn’t taken a position on the bond, but wants him at the table as it is crafted to make sure it’s something they can support.

“I don’t think there is any question at all that we need some additional money going into housing in our community,” Rumble said.

An infusion of tax dollars is part of the solution, Rumble said. Others include shortening the regulatory process for housing developments, increasing the certainty for builders in that process, focusing projects on the downtown core and transit areas, and the support of elected officials, he said.

A bond is the fastest, most powerful tool available to raise the money needed to get enough needed projects underway, Tibbetts said. That’s because the local money can then be used to leverage current and future state dollars, including funds from the proposed $4 billion state housing bond, he said.

In many cases $1 in local funds can be leveraged for three times that much in federal tax credits, said Larry Florin, chief executive officer of Burbank Housing, the area’s largest affordable housing builder.

The fierce competition for crucial tax credits often comes down to which projects have more local matching funds, he said. A $24 million, 50-unit project now underway in Napa only secured the $9.5 million in tax credits it needed because the city and county ponied up $3 million in local matching funds, he said.

The idea for such a bond stretches back to last year before the fires when various affordable housing providers got together and did some polling to “test the outer limits of what we thought was possible” in a housing bond, Florin said.

While the tentative figure may sound high, it is “a drop in the bucket” compared to what’s needed, Florin said.

Using rough math of $500,000 a unit and leveraging triple the local match, $370 million might create 4,000 affordable units. But something closer to 17,000 affordable units are what’s really needed for the county, he said.

The Santa Rosa City Council’s housing and infrastructure committee also met last year to discuss the city’s options for housing and infrastructure. That was before the fires, which left the city and the county with no bandwidth to deal with anything other than the fire response, Tibbetts said.

But now things are moving again, buoyed by new polling that shows even stronger post-fire support for the idea, he said. Such a bond would need two-thirds support to pass.

The polling asked 600 registered voters whether they would support Sonoma County issuing “up to $370 million in general obligation bonds to acquire or improve real property, subject to independent citizen oversight and regular audits.” The funds would “provide affordable local housing for vulnerable people and families, including low- and middle-income families, veterans, seniors and persons with disabilities, provide supportive housing for the homeless that includes mental health and substance abuse services; and help low- and middle-income households purchase homes in their communities.”

The latest poll showed 73 percent of Santa Rosa residents and 71 percent of county residents supportive of the idea. Support was lower, however, when voters were asked whether they’d be willing to pay a parcel tax of ?$49 per $100,000 of assessed value per year to pay for it.

Those numbers showed just ?58 percent supportive, according to the poll, which was conducted by EMC research and had a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

While clearly a massive undertaking, the proposed bond figure is not unprecedented. Santa Rosa Junior College is in the midst of a building boom supported by a $410 million bond, and voter-approved sales taxes have funded construction on the SMART rail line, at a total cost of more than $600 million so far.

Success at the ballot box will require political compromise.

There is a concerted effort being made to sidestep the historical conflict between the county’s strong environmental block, some segments of which have favored slower growth, and the development community, said Chris Grabill, a member of the executive committee representing Sonoma County Conservation Action.

Those who favor protection of farmland and the natural world by centering growth in cities should support a measure that ensures people can afford to live in those cities, Grabill said.

“They can’t be separated anymore,” he said.

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

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