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Sonoma County’s new state housing goals seek to spur more aggressive local response to chronic shortage

California wants Sonoma County to build significantly more homes to alleviate the region’s chronic housing shortage. And unlike in the past, the state is poised to hold local governments’ feet to the fire to meet their housing goals.

Between 2023 and 2031, the county and its nine cities must approve over 14,500 new homes, a 72% jump from the current eight-year state housing cycle.

To ensure cities and counties hit their increased permitting targets, the state has beefed up enforcement of its housing laws and mandates. It’s threatening fines, lawsuits and withholding funding for municipalities that fail to adequately plan for growth.

“The tug of war between the state and the cities over local control is really what this is all about,” said Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, who sits on the regional board that oversees housing goals for the Bay Area.

The new goals represent a big reach for the region, where tough zoning and environmental regulations combined with high building costs and a limited amount of available land have for decades hampered housing production. Devastating wildfires have also put the area in a hole, wiping out more than 7,500 homes in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties since 2017.

In Sonoma County, about half of the roughly 6,000 homes lost to the recent fires have been rebuilt, according to data from Santa Rosa and Sonoma County. Meanwhile, the county and all nine cities have approved 8,340 new homes since 2015, according to state housing data.

Even if local officials plan accordingly, the challenges of developing housing in the North Bay mean there’s no guarantee all the new homes the state is pushing for in Sonoma County will actually get built.

“We get it, we have to build more housing, and we’re doing our part,” said Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Rogers, a staunch backer of “smart” growth in his city. “On the other hand, most jurisdictions don’t actually build any housing. It’s not something that we do.”

Last month, the Association of Bay Area Governments finalized the home building targets for the upcoming cycle — known as its Regional Housing Needs Assessment — across the nine-county region. That includes 14,562 new housing units for Sonoma County.

As part of the state-mandated assessment, counties and cities are required to approve enough housing that falls into each of four categories: very low income, low income, moderate income and above moderate income.

But for the current cycle ending this year, most jurisdictions in the state haven’t come close to permitting sufficient homes across those income levels, with little consequence.

In Sonoma County, only Sonoma, Healdsburg and the unincorporated county appear on their way to hit their targets for this cycle.

For the entire county, local jurisdictions had through July 2021 met only the above moderate income goal. Together, they’ve approved 5,969 of those kinds of units, or 143% of the county’s overall target, according to state data. That’s compared to just 626 units for very low income homes, or 35% of the county goal.

A housing ‘strike force’

One of the primary reasons for that lack of progress, developers say, is the complicated and often costly local permitting process, which can take years to navigate and which developers often blame for killing a project.

Before receiving permits, developers must go through a series of planning, design and environmental reviews, as well as agree to pay significant fees aimed at offsetting a development’s effect on local infrastructure.

State lawmakers have in recent years passed high-profile legislation to streamline that process. One law, known as Senate Bill 35, requires local governments failing to meet housing goals to quickly approve projects that meet zoning requirements and have affordable units.

Jorge Ortiz drills holes for vents into pieces of siding while working to complete the River City Senior Apartments, a new PEP Housing residential complex, in Petaluma on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)
Jorge Ortiz drills holes for vents into pieces of siding while working to complete the River City Senior Apartments, a new PEP Housing residential complex, in Petaluma on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)

Mary Stompe, executive director for PEP Housing, a local nonprofit developer, asked the city of Petaluma to fast-track a 54-unit senior living project under the 2017 law. Stompe was turned down even though she maintains the development qualified.

The decision added at least a year to the planning process for River City Senior Apartments, she said, leading to additional development costs. The project finally broke ground in 2020.

“The state can make all the regulations they want, but if there’s no teeth to it, what’s the point?” Stompe said.

Enter the Housing Accountability Unit, a new 25-person team under the state housing department tasked with ensuring local governments follow housing laws such as SB 35, as well as designate and zone the appropriate land for new homes to meet their upcoming housing goals.

Jurisdictions that fail to comply can face court fines, miss out on state housing grants and potentially lose their land-use authority.

Additionally, the California Department of Justice recently created a 12-member “strike force” equipped to bring lawsuits against cities and counties that skirt housing mandates.

“This is a strike force of action with an intent to be involved and to use the tools that we have in our toolbox,” state Attorney General Rob Bonta said in a November news conference announcing the effort.

That tough stance, along with increased housing targets across the state, has prompted a backlash from neighborhood groups. Some in Southern California have begun gathering signatures for a ballot measure to amend the state constitution and give jurisdictions power to override state laws when it comes to land-use decisions.

Lisa Wittke Schaffner, chief executive of the North Bay Builders Exchange trade group and a former mayor of Healdsburg, said local officials can be reluctant to approve housing because of their constituents’ often vocal objections. Those range from concerns about environmental impacts and drought, to increased traffic and maintaining “neighborhood integrity.”

“The hope is that with a little pressure from the state, the local government can take a stand,” Schaffner said.

Development challenges

Approving more homes to meet state housing goals is one thing. But actually getting permitted projects built is its own challenge.

Rohnert Park — which has greenlit over 1,700 new units this cycle and will likely meet its housing targets except for moderate incomes — has seen its 465-apartment redevelopment project for a long-desired downtown hub on State Farm Drive delayed for years because the developer struggled to find financing.

The property is now up for sale, and it’s unclear exactly what will become of the project.

Susan Hollingsworth-Adams, a Rohnert Park councilwoman and city representative with the Association of Bay Area Governments, said completing such developments is not as simple as just handing out building permits.

“Cities have got to do the zoning and attract the developer to come in and do the building, and that is a heavy lift,” Adams said. “Everything has to line up perfectly to make that happen. And we don’t live in that world.”

Across California, the high costs of land, materials and labor often stall a project. And the pandemic has only increased uncertainty for building.

But in the North Bay, securing the necessary loans and investments for developments is a particular challenge. Sonoma County, unlike more populated parts of the Bay Area, doesn’t have the same track record of successful large-scale projects to convince potential lenders they’ll see enough return on their investment.

“It’s perceived, and not incorrectly, as more risky and uncertain,” said Keith Rogal, a Napa-based developer of the 120-unit 1 Santa Rosa Ave. project near Old Courthouse Square.

Supervisor Rabbitt, a member of the Association of Bay Area Governments executive board, wants to see more projects like Rogal’s in Sonoma County’s urban core.

Last year, officials with Sonoma County government went before the ABAG executive board and unsuccessfully appealed its housing goal of 3,881 total units, a jump from just 515 homes in the current cycle.

Rabbitt recused himself from the vote. But he agreed with the county’s core arguments that its housing allocation should have been slashed because it lacks the necessary sewer and water infrastructure, and that voter-enacted urban growth boundaries limit available land for development.

Instead, Rabbit contends the housing should go to local cities already zoned for “naturally affordable” apartments and multifamily homes. Proponents of such “city-centered” growth say building closer to public transit and job centers will also limit the effect on municipal infrastructure, traffic and climate-harming vehicle emissions.

While the appeal was shot down, Rabbitt said Santa Rosa is working on a plan to voluntarily take on a portion of the unincorporated county’s housing goal, a move allowed under state law.

And to help see that additional housing to completion in Santa Rosa, Rabbitt pointed to the Renewal Enterprise District, a joint effort by the county and city that has amassed tens of millions of dollars in public funds and private grants to lend out to large projects in and around downtown.

“It’s not the suburban small sprawl of the old,” Rabbitt said. “It’s not the white picket fence and the two-car garage. It’s the town home, it’s the condominium or the small lot piece.”

Alfredo Ocampo cuts metal studs to hang in a unit while working to complete the River City Senior Apartments, a new PEP Housing residential complex, in Petaluma on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)
Alfredo Ocampo cuts metal studs to hang in a unit while working to complete the River City Senior Apartments, a new PEP Housing residential complex, in Petaluma on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)

A very clear message’

Generation Housing, a fledgling housing advocacy group in Sonoma County, aims to help hold local governments accountable in distributing their housing allocations fairly and equitably across the region, a key objective handed down by the state for the upcoming housing cycle.

Calum Weeks, policy director with Generation Housing, said local officials should put a focus on planning for more housing and upgrading infrastructure in underserved areas such as the predominantly Latino neighborhoods in southwest Santa Rosa.

Some local residents and officials there, including Councilman Eddie Alvarez, have raised concerns the city has approved too many residential projects in their community without making what they see as corresponding investments in local roads and parks.

In addition to lobbying local cities and the county, Weeks said he’s assembling volunteers to “ground-truth” jurisdictions’ upcoming land-use plans: visiting parcels that officials zone for future housing to ensure they can be feasibly developed — a common flaw in local housing plans, according to researchers and advocates.

“I’m going to be looking for these things, and I’m going to be calling people out,” he said.

It appears Weeks will have a willing ally in the state.

Earlier this month, a housing accountability manager with the state sent a letter to the Cloverdale Planning Commission reminding it not to run afoul of housing laws as it was considering a controversial 75-unit affordable housing development along Asti Road.

The commission approved the project, though it still can be appealed to the City Council.

“I would definitely read it as a very clear message or warning that the state is watching and will step in if (the project) doesn’t go through,” said Jen Klose, executive director of Generation Housing.

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian.

Ethan Varian

Housing and homelessness, The Press Democrat 

I've lived in California for most of my life, and it's hard for me to remember when the state hasn't been in a housing crisis. Here in Sonoma County, sharply rising housing costs and increasing homelessness are reshaping what was long considered the Bay Area’s “affordable” region. As The Press Democrat’s housing and homelessness reporter, I aim to cover how officials, advocates, developers and residents are reacting to and experiencing the ongoing crisis.

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