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Golis: Can we change how we think about housing?

As Sonoma County communities scramble to increase the stock of affordable housing, community leaders will be obliged to confront hard questions: Who needs housing, and what kind of housing do they need? Where will it go, and what will it look like? And what is government’s role in supporting housing?

For elected officials, planners, builders, environmentalists and neighborhood groups, these will not be easy conversations. The principal actors will be obliged to think about housing in new ways. And they will need to put aside old political reflexes, recognizing that this is 2015, not 1990.

The rest of us? We will need to reconcile our contradictions. We can’t celebrate the growth of jobs and oppose housing for the people who work in those jobs. We can’t shed a tear for working families living out of cars and then oppose housing for those very same families.

Can we change? Let’s just say if we want our hometowns to be humane and prosperous, we will need to try. We won’t like living in towns where nurses, teachers, shop clerks and vineyard workers can’t afford a place to live.

Beginning after World War II, California solved its housing problems by sprawling into the next valley and the next and the next. What’s not to like about a big house on a large lot and the freedom afforded by the automobile?

But the time came when communities discovered that the least expensive part of sprawl development was what came first. Empty land is cheaper and easier to build on.

It turns out that sprawl destroys farmland and the natural beauty of a place. Sprawl invites the building of larger and less affordable homes. (Despite evidence that millennials want to live in more compact, urban settings, the median area of a home built in the past decade was half again as large a home built in the 1960s, according to a U.S. Census Bureau analysis. In 2013, the average area of a single-family home built in the U.S. was 2,598 square feet.)

Sprawl also increases the cost of government and otherwise imposes costs that never go away: the costs of building and maintaining larger and larger networks of highways, roads, sewer, electrical and water systems; the costs of more traffic congestion, air pollution, auto fatalities, car repairs and fossil fuel consumption; the costs of lost productivity and lost revenue from farm production.

The Atlantic CityLab, which reports on urban issues, last week served up only the latest study accounting for the economics of sprawl. The study, commissioned by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, placed the annual cost to the U.S. economy at more than $1 trillion.

In Sonoma County, the taxes we pay to expand the freeway and build a rail system - and the tax we may pay to improve a rural road system - reflect past decisions to live in one place and work and shop in another.

Eventually, communities began to put the reins on sprawl development. In Sonoma County, an open space tax, voter-approved urban boundaries and other limits on new construction became the official response.

Along the way, cities talked a lot about “smart growth,” which would provide a new city-centered paradigm for community development, but the current shortage of affordable housing becomes testimony to the cities’ inability to complete the circle.

Yes, it’s complicated and difficult. For government and for the housing industry, too, the path to a coherent approach to housing is littered with financial, legal and political obstacles.

Communities not only fail to provide incentives for the housing most people need, they place roadblocks along the way.

Almost no one would return to the days of sprawl development. But doing nothing isn’t working either. Too many people are homeless, or otherwise living in substandard conditions. Too many people are paying rents that threaten to leave a family without enough money for food and health care.

On Thursday, a Press Democrat editorial focused on the findings of a new legislative analyst’s study of housing in California. If you haven’t read the editorial, you should. It tells the story of good intentions and unintended consequences - of how growth limits, fees, regulations and a convoluted system of taxation combined to create a housing shortage and to make coastal California among the most expensive places in the world to live and do business. What’s worse, the gap between California and everyone else is growing wider.

As one measure of the housing shortage, the report says, Californians are four times as likely as other Americans to live in over-crowded housing.

If we repeat the past, we know how this goes. There will be finger pointing all around.

Enlightened self-interest would suggest a different approach, one that recognizes that the next generation of workers also needs a place to live.

When Gov. Jerry Brown told Editorial Director Paul Gullixson that Sonoma County doesn’t want more housing, Brown managed to provoke a variety of local reactions. (If you think the governor minds being provocative, you would be wrong.)

What matters, of course, is not what we think about the past, but what we do going forward.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.

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