PD Editorial: After Measure C, housing solutions are still needed

The best thing that can be said about Santa Rosa’s rent control referendum is that it’s over.

Measure C dominated local politics for nearly a year, creating uncertainty for landlords and tenants alike, while amplifying longstanding conflicts between progressive groups and business interests over the best direction for Sonoma County’s largest city. And, for the first time, spending on a Santa Rosa ballot measure topped $1 million.

For supporters of rent control, it was a bitter outcome.

Santa Rosa voters soundly, and we believe wisely, rejected Measure C, which would have imposed price controls on a fraction of the city’s rental market. But, as both sides know, the underlying problem - an alarming shortage of housing - hasn’t gone away.

Safe, clean shelter is one of life’s necessities. Financial advisers recommend spending no more than a third of your income on housing, but many people in Santa Rosa, and throughout California, can’t find homes they can afford.

That’s true for prospective buyers, just as it is for prospective renters.

Figures from the California Association of Realtors show that only about a third of California households can afford a median-priced home, which costs about $465,000. The picture is bleaker still here in Sonoma County, where barely one in four households meets the income requirements to buy a $639,000 median-priced home.

As for rentals, seven of the 10 least affordable markets in the country are in the Bay Area, according to a report issued Wednesday by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Santa Rosa, where 41 percent of households rent and an average two-bedroom apartment goes for more than $1,500 a month, narrowly missed the Bottom 10 list.

The source of the problem isn’t unchecked growth. California’s population has grown slowly in recent years, but housing construction hasn’t kept pace with demand.

Why? There are practical obstacles, such as topography and water, especially in coastal areas, that limit the availability of land. There are political obstacles, most notably resistance from existing residents concerned that new development, even in those areas zoned for housing, will bring traffic and other consequences. There are economic and legal obstacles, including environmental reviews, government fees for new infrastructure associated with development and habitat protection for endangered species. Finally, few industries were hit harder by the recession than housing, which experienced a wave of foreclosures and tight credit for builders and buyers alike.

Santa Rosa has taken some steps to encourage development, including streamlining the review process and offering targeted subsidies for affordable housing projects. More options, including relaxing the rules for granny units, are in the pipeline.

State legislators, meanwhile, introduced more than 100 housing-related bills this year. Among them are a proposal to reduce costs by conducting a single environmental review covering all residential development in a designated area and another that would limit the ability of local governments to reject development applications in areas zoned for housing. There also are proposals to subsidize affordable housing through bonds, new fees on real estate transactions and eliminating the mortgage interest deduction on second homes.

Finding the right mix will require goodwill and compromise from all of the competing interests, including the combatants from Measure C. Let’s move forward.

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