As Santa Rosa grapples with a historic housing crisis, city officials are trying to tackle the problem from many angles.
They’re boosting outreach services to homeless people, exploring ways to add incentives to spur the construction of more affordable housing and considering a rent control ordinance.
But a largely behind-the-scenes effort to streamline the city’s own development review process, which builders have bemoaned for years as expensive and painfully unpredictable, takes center stage this week.
Nine months after a consultant issued a blistering report that labeled the planning department dysfunctional and suggested dozens of changes, the department will ask the City Council on Tuesday for a nearly $1.3 million budget bump aimed at improving the city’s ability to deal with a logjam of new commercial and housing projects.
“We understand the importance of time, cost and certainty to getting these projects through the development review process, and we are doing our best to address each of those,” said David Guhin, interim director of Santa Rosa’s planning and economic development department.
Toward that end, Guhin is seeking approval for more full-time employees to address chronic staffing shortages and more money for consultants to clear out the short-term crush of applications. In addition, Guhin wants upgrades to the department’s computer system to more efficiently manage, track and publicize information about development applications.
Taken individually, the changes won’t dramatically reduce the time it takes for builders to navigate the city’s bureaucratic gauntlet or allow them to immediately build anything approaching the number of new homes and apartments needed to meet the demand.
Nor will it do anything to address the thorny side issue of how to encourage developers to build more affordable housing, something the city is moving toward on a separate track.
But combined with other changes the department has made in recent months — like expanding the hours it is open to the public — officials are hopeful they can ease the burdens on developers and repair the city’s reputation as a difficult place to do business, without eroding residents’ ability to influence what gets built in their neighborhoods.
“We’re confident the resources we’re requesting on Tuesday will give us a big bump toward addressing the council’s housing goals, as well as all the work we have been doing on our multi-year process improvements,” Guhin said.
For developers with millions riding on getting their projects approved, built and sold, talk is cheap. While the city is saying the right things, some developers have yet to see the promised efficiencies.
San Francisco-based City Ventures wants to build 400 homes in five projects in various stages of approval in the northwest and southwest sections of the city. The company purchased the undeveloped properties in 2013 and to date has yet to pull a single building permit.
There are plenty of reasons for the delays, including revisions to previously approved subdivision plans to better reflect the current market, and the presence of endangered tiger salamander habitat on the properties. But getting through the city’s process has been an exasperating experience.
“I have five projects. I have four different planners I’ve worked with. It’s almost like working in four different places sometimes,” said Charity Wagner, development director for the company.