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.
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.