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Sonoma County supervisors make housing key priority

Sonoma County supervisors are eying rent control, just-cause eviction policies and land-use reforms to increase affordable housing as key components of a broad and ambitious new plan to address the county’s housing crisis.

Supervisors unveiled the plan in an outline of their top policy priorities for the year, with action on county’s steadily tighter housing crunch foremost on the list.

Board members voiced support for moves certain to generate controversy, including stronger protections for tenants and development of new housing, both within and outside city limits. The measures are seen as possible ways to keep people in their homes and stave off steeper rent increases that are pricing out the lowest-income residents.

“This crisis has elevated, and we can’t afford to ignore it anymore,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Efren Carrillo said. “It’s being felt by just about everyone in this county, and it’s affecting our schools, our health care system and our workforce.”

The discussion comes on the heels of similar initiatives taken up in Santa Rosa and Healdsburg in recent months. The housing plan was put forward as part of a larger blueprint for the Board of Supervisors’ policy goals and spending priorities for this year.

Other priorities discussed Tuesday include advancing a countywide universal preschool program, increasing access to mental health services, developing new rules on marijuana cultivation, improving water quality in the Russian River, reducing long-term pension liabilities and completing the annexation of Roseland by the city of Santa Rosa.

Supervisors staked out potential tenant protections and housing initiatives as a response to the rising cost of living in Sonoma County - rents have gone up 40 percent in the past four years, and the rental vacancy rate is hovering around 1 percent.

First up for preliminary consideration next month likely will be the most disputed options, including rent control, new rules governing landlords’ ability to evict tenants and moves to address health and safety problems with substandard housing.

“We know that maintaining our housing stock is one of the best ways to preserve affordable housing,” Supervisor Susan Gorin said. “It’s not OK to just evict people and say, ‘You’re on your own.’?”

Also up for discussion this spring is the potential use of surplus county-owned property for housing development, easing zoning restrictions to allow higher-density housing outside city boundaries or in some cases, requiring construction of dense housing in new development proposals.

Achieving the county’s affordable housing goals would cost $11 million over the next four years, officials said. No figures were given on how many affordable units the plan would create or preserve.

Though supervisors identified housing, universal preschool and other goals as priorities last year, this year’s strategy appears to identify new ways to pay for the initiatives and increase financial reserves.

For example, County Administrator Veronica Ferguson is recommending a hiring freeze of at least a year following a new 28-month contract negotiated with the Service Employees’ International Union Local 1021, which represents more than half the county’s 4,100 workforce.

Supervisors also are set to consider issuing general obligation bonds or going to voters for potential tax increases. Options include a quarter-cent sales tax measure and raising hotel bed taxes 3 percent. Revenues could be dedicated to a wide range of services, including affordable housing, public safety and other programs. Absent from that discussion Tuesday was additional spending on county roads, which were the subject of a failed tax increase put before voters last year.

A quarter-cent sales tax increase would generate $20 million per year, and a 3 percent increase in transient occupancy taxes would generate $3 million annually, county officials said.

“It does make sense to look at presenting voters with expanded (Transient Occupancy Tax),” Gorin said. “It’s probably time … to move it to the ballot, hopefully in November.”

Supervisor James Gore, whose north county district includes many lodging businesses and tourism-oriented destinations, voiced support for a look at a hotel-bed tax increase.

“There’s a lot of our constituents and residents who feel the impacts of tourism and pay for those impacts with their own taxes,” Gore said.

Supervisors on Tuesday approved a tentative work plan to take up other high-profile issues this year, including new potential limits on winery development, implementing a tobacco retail license that would raise the cost for a pack of cigarettes to a minimum of $7, putting renewal of community separators - protected greenbelts between cities - on the November ballot and addressing needs for patients displaced by the planned closure of the Sonoma Developmental Center in 2018.

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

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