Sonoma County supervisor candidates Noreen Evans, Lynda Hopkins stake out platforms on housing
From the escalating rents facing tenants to the tight market weighing on home buyers, Sonoma County’s housing crisis is emerging as a dominant issue in the race to replace Efren Carrillo on the Board of Supervisors.
The two leading candidates, Noreen Evans and Lynda Hopkins, are staking out proposals that could change city skylines, restrict how landlords conduct their business, overhaul the permitting process for housing developers and alter the socioeconomic makeup of whole neighborhoods.
Evans, an attorney and former state legislator, has argued in favor of rent control and other tenant protections, as well as new mandates requiring developers to build affordable housing in all new projects.
“We have to maintain our current stock of affordable housing. We need to build thousands more affordable units, and we need to elect someone who is willing to stand up to the developers and real estate interests who don’t want to do this because it’s not profitable,” said Evans, also a former Santa Rosa councilwoman. “Housing is the No. 1 issue in this campaign, and what’s at stake is what Sonoma County will look like in the future - a community for just the wealthy or a place that everyone can afford to live.”
Hopkins, an organic farmer who has never held elected office, has outlined a housing strategy that focuses on reducing permit fees and creating other incentives to encourage developers to build more units, as well as streamlining the permitting process for homeowners seeking to convert rooms into rental units.
“The idea is to rent out underutilized bedrooms,” Hopkins said. “Addressing our affordability crisis is my top policy priority, and I think it reflects what I’m seeing and hearing when I’m knocking on doors and walking precincts. How to afford life in Sonoma County is the No. 1 concern I hear from the community and it really centers around the housing situation here.”
She has also floated a potential tax increase to fund new home construction and rental assistance programs.
“It’s sort of my pie-in-the-sky, big dream hope,” Hopkins said, comparing such a measure to the tax county residents pay to set aside open space and farmland. “We as a community have decided that affordable housing ?is important.”
Evans and Hopkins appear to be the two front-runners that will advance to a November runoff.
The other candidates in the west county primary election Tuesday are Tim Sergent, a special education teacher at Maria Carrillo High School; Tom Lynch, a county planning commissioner and fiscal watchdog; and Marion Chase, a county social services worker. They, too, said the rising cost of housing is a top concern among 5th District constituents and residents countywide.
The cost of housing across the county has continued to climb in recent years. From its low of $305,000 in February 2009, the county’s median home price has risen to $569,500, slightly lower than the record high of $619,000 set in August 2005.
Rents, meanwhile, have risen 40 percent over the past four years, and the rental vacancy rate is now hovering at around 1 percent.
More than 12,300 Sonoma County households are on waiting lists for an affordable unit, with the average wait time of six to seven years.
At the same time, combating homelessness has become a greater challenge for local governments, prompting responses that have ranged from relaxed rules for camping overnight in vehicles to development of a tiny home village on vacant county land in Santa Rosa.
On the campaign trail, candidates have thrown out other ideas, including creation of tent villages scattered across the county on government land and private property as temporary shelter, and use of vacant county-owned buildings as permanent housing.
Carrillo, who has represented the west county since 2009, said housing concerns among 5th District residents are now as critical as the condition of county roads.
“Housing affordability is right up there with roads and potholes this year - those are the two main problems I hear about,” Carrillo said. “It’s clear people are being pinched from the housing crisis, and it has become a wedge issue.”
Evans and Hopkins have split key endorsements among experts in the housing field.
David Grabill, a longtime housing rights attorney and activist, has endorsed Evans.
“She’s experienced, knowledgeable and energetic and she’s pissed off the powers-at-be in real estate for a long time,” Grabill said. “She sticks to her guns. That’s critically important right now because with our severe housing shortage, increasing affordability is not going to be easy.”