Rebuilding Sonoma County: City and county leaders take urgent actions to stimulate home construction
Stephen Thomas loved his two-story Cape Cod home in Coffey Park. But after it burned in the wildfire a year ago, he wasn’t about to build a replica to replace it.
“That was a closed chapter,” said Thomas, a retired Santa Rosa police commander.
Instead, Thomas and his wife, Linda, had a new foundation poured this month for a factory-built, zero-net-energy house on their San Sonita Drive property in Santa Rosa. The two-story, farmhouse-style home with a loft will be built with sturdy insulated panels rather than traditional wood framing.
The house, Thomas said, is “all electric and all its energy comes from solar.”
The Thomases, who in the past year have lived in three different temporary residences, find themselves among those Sonoma County fire survivors rebuilding homes in an area with a decided lack of housing.
One year after the historic Tubbs fire, the most destructive in state history, the rebuilding of torched homes in the county is well underway, with about a third in some stage of the permit or construction process. However, city and county officials still are struggling with a second deficit: thousands of houses never built here following a global recession and a housing market crash 10 years ago.
The slow pace of new residential construction in the past decade and last fall’s fiery destruction of about 5,300 county homes have combined to create a pronounced shortage many local elected officials and real estate experts say led to an affordability crisis. Apartment rents and single-family home prices have soared since 2012, far outpacing wage growth and forcing many workers to commute longer distances from places with less expensive housing.
Economist and civic leaders say the shortage is preventing people from moving to the county and places an unwelcome brake on economic growth.
In response, city and county officials have proposed ways to spur new residential construction. That includes Santa Rosa City Council’s action last week to cut fees charged to builders for downtown projects of taller apartment buildings and more affordable houses.
Also, Santa Rosa voters this November will decide the fate of a $124 million housing bond offering. Supporters say the bonds could provide the local match for state and federal funds to build upward of 4,000 new affordable, or subsidized, homes.
The housing bond’s passage is far from assured because it requires a two-thirds approval and a major union organization at least initially has opposed it. Also, a recent battle over redeveloping the old 82-acre county-owned hospital property on Chanate Road in the city’s northeast section shows that individual housing development proposals can still meet intense neighborhood opposition.
Even though elected officials can’t take credit for spurring new housing developments in the past year, they do point to a growing consensus more homes are needed for working families that are vital to the community and its economy.
For evidence, look no further than the overlapping positions of Sonoma County Conservation Action, one of the prominent local environmental groups, and the North Coast Builders Exchange, a construction trade group.
Daisy Pistey-Lyhne, Conservation Action’s executive director, said new housing projects should meet a number of criteria, such as avoiding sprawl and generating less effects in terms of water and energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. Also, her organization doesn’t agree with the view of some county leaders that up to 25,000 homes should be built here in the next five years.
“But if we don’t develop at all, we’re going to lose our community,” Pistey-Lyhne said.
“Sonoma County needs to do its part” in providing workforce housing, along with the rest of the Bay Area, she said. She added she personally would welcome the chance to live in “a vibrant downtown core” in Santa Rosa and the discussion on new housing projects should move beyond “a fairly suburban mindset.”
“There are still many people who are thinking of Santa Rosa as it was,” she said, “rather than what it could be and should be in the future.”
Keith Woods, CEO of the builders exchange, said the county will “not build our way out” of the housing shortage with just new single-family homes. Developers will need “to build up and not out,” he said, and residents must accept taller buildings in downtown Santa Rosa.
Woods predicted a spurt of housing will be built along the Highway 101 corridor in the next few years and “the emphasis on multi-family will be like nothing we’ve seen in decades.”
Santa Rosa and county officials take credit for making it easier to secure building permits for those rebuilding homes in fire-ravaged areas of Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, Mark West and Sonoma Valley. Property owners have applied to rebuild more than 1,800 of the burned homes, and more than 1,000 have actually started construction.