Sonoma County, Santa Rosa may set up new government agency to help get more housing built

The agency is planned as a joint effort with Santa Rosa to foster homebuilding in targeted areas, including sites near transit and properties within the city’s urban core.|

Feeling increasingly frustrated with Sonoma County’s constant housing shortage, the Board of Supervisors agreed Wednesday to move toward creating a new government agency designed to fuel construction of homes in places where public officials want them most.

The agency is planned as a joint effort with Santa Rosa to foster homebuilding in targeted areas, including sites near transit and properties within the city’s urban core. Many of the details are unresolved, but the agency is expected to help finance projects by tapping into various government funding sources, and perhaps even securing its own share of earmarked tax revenue within certain geographic boundaries.

It could prove to be one of the most aggressive mechanisms used by local governments to create new housing in the county since the state dissolved redevelopment agencies several years ago. But several hurdles remain in the way of the agency becoming reality.

Santa Rosa’s City Council needs to consider the plan later this month, after which city and county representatives would flesh out a more detailed agreement to bring back to their respective elected bodies.

And the plan has not been met with unqualified praise so far: Supervisor David Rabbitt was skeptical Wednesday about whether the agency could substantially improve the regional housing crisis, and Supervisor Susan Gorin questioned how much her southeastern county constituents would benefit, given the agency’s work would be focused in and near Santa Rosa at first.

But the other three supervisors were enthusiastic about the proposed housing agency, viewing it as an opportunity to be proactive about addressing an intractable public policy problem.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again,” said Supervisor James Gore, the board chairman. “What we are doing on housing has not worked.”

Gore compared the housing agency proposal to Sonoma Clean Power, the green power agency created by the county in 2012.

Currently referred to as a renewal enterprise district, the housing agency would be established initially as a joint-powers authority between Sonoma County and Santa Rosa. It would be governed for two years by two elected officials each from the county and city, and its jurisdiction would be limited to the city’s boundaries and the unincorporated areas during that time.

After those two years, the agency could expand to include other cities as well, officials said.

“We do not have a choice of not growing right now,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane. “We have got to build housing for everybody. And I really expect to see a renaissance here in terms of how we bring our vision together, how we grow in a smart way.”

The agency could be funded by a housing bond like the one proposed for Santa Rosa this fall. Another local option would be the creation of a financing zone within which specified tax revenue increases are earmarked to help fund the agency.

Money could also come from state sources like last year’s Senate Bill 2, which is expected to raise $250 million a year for housing.

David Guhin, Santa Rosa’s director of planning and economic development, said the city and county have been talking for several months about finding ways to work more closely on a coordinated approach to getting more housing built.

“The biggest power in this is the regional structure it provides,” Guhin said in an interview. “It shows the city’s and county’s commitment to work together to address this issue.”

Officials acknowledged the district may not prove as effective as they hope it will be. But when considering the county’s desperate need for housing, a crisis made even more urgent by the October wildfires, supporters see it as one of the most obvious tools they can try.

“It’s a bit of a gamble. I don’t think it costs us much, truthfully, to try it,” said Margaret Van Vliet, director of the county’s Community Development Commission, at a supervisors’ meeting Wednesday.

But Rabbitt, an architect, harbored reservations. He cast doubt on whether providing more public financing and government involvement was the best route, pointing instead at some of the other public roadblocks that can bedevil housing projects.

“I come from this. I know this. I live and breathe this,” Rabbitt said. “The obstacles are not those. They are what will happen when the projects come forward, and the people come out and they get beat up. Dragged out. Uncertainty. I don’t know how we get around that.”

Santa Rosa City Council members are expected to discuss the housing agency proposal at their regular meeting June 26.

Staff Writer Kevin McCallum contributed reporting. You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or

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