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Housing platforms 5th District front-runners

Noreen Evans

— Favors rent control, limits on landlords’ ability to evict tenants

— Proposes tougher rules requiring developers to build affordable units in new projects

— Supports impact fees paid by developers

— Favors city-centered housing development bolstered by county funds and county aid to fast track environmental review

***

Lynda Hopkins

— Supports rent control and eviction limits only if Santa Rosa enacts its proposed rent cap and tenant protections.

— Favors altering impact fees paid by developers to a per-square-foot basis rather than per unit

— Favors fewer requirements and fees for homeowners who want to convert existing rooms into rentals and build granny units

— Favors a tax increase to fund new home construction and rental assistance programs

___

PDF: Where do permit fees go?

From the escalating rents facing tenants to the tight market weighing on home buyers, Sonoma County’s housing crisis is emerging as a dominant issue in the race to replace Efren Carrillo on the Board of Supervisors.

The two leading candidates, Noreen Evans and Lynda Hopkins, are staking out proposals that could change city skylines, restrict how landlords conduct their business, overhaul the permitting process for housing developers and alter the socioeconomic makeup of whole neighborhoods.

Evans, an attorney and former state legislator, has argued in favor of rent control and other tenant protections, as well as new mandates requiring developers to build affordable housing in all new projects.

“We have to maintain our current stock of affordable housing. We need to build thousands more affordable units, and we need to elect someone who is willing to stand up to the developers and real estate interests who don’t want to do this because it’s not profitable,” said Evans, also a former Santa Rosa councilwoman. “Housing is the No. 1 issue in this campaign, and what’s at stake is what Sonoma County will look like in the future — a community for just the wealthy or a place that everyone can afford to live.”

Hopkins, an organic farmer who has never held elected office, has outlined a housing strategy that focuses on reducing permit fees and creating other incentives to encourage developers to build more units, as well as streamlining the permitting process for homeowners seeking to convert rooms into rental units.

“The idea is to rent out underutilized bedrooms,” Hopkins said. “Addressing our affordability crisis is my top policy priority, and I think it reflects what I’m seeing and hearing when I’m knocking on doors and walking precincts. How to afford life in Sonoma County is the No. 1 concern I hear from the community and it really centers around the housing situation here.”

She has also floated a potential tax increase to fund new home construction and rental assistance programs.

“It’s sort of my pie-in-the-sky, big dream hope,” Hopkins said, comparing such a measure to the tax county residents pay to set aside open space and farmland. “We as a community have decided that affordable housing is important.”

Evans and Hopkins appear to be the two front-runners that will advance to a November runoff.

The other candidates in the west county primary election Tuesday are Tim Sergent, a special education teacher at Maria Carrillo High School; Tom Lynch, a county planning commissioner and fiscal watchdog; and Marion Chase, a county social services worker. They, too, said the rising cost of housing is a top concern among 5th District constituents and residents countywide.

Skyrocketing costs

The cost of housing across the county has continued to climb in recent years. From its low of $305,000 in February 2009, the county’s median home price has risen to $569,500, slightly lower than the record high of $619,000 set in August 2005.

Rents, meanwhile, have risen 40 percent over the past four years, and the rental vacancy rate is now hovering at around 1 percent.

More than 12,300 Sonoma County households are on waiting lists for an affordable unit, with the average wait time of six to seven years.

Housing platforms 5th District front-runners

Noreen Evans

— Favors rent control, limits on landlords’ ability to evict tenants

— Proposes tougher rules requiring developers to build affordable units in new projects

— Supports impact fees paid by developers

— Favors city-centered housing development bolstered by county funds and county aid to fast track environmental review

***

Lynda Hopkins

— Supports rent control and eviction limits only if Santa Rosa enacts its proposed rent cap and tenant protections.

— Favors altering impact fees paid by developers to a per-square-foot basis rather than per unit

— Favors fewer requirements and fees for homeowners who want to convert existing rooms into rentals and build granny units

— Favors a tax increase to fund new home construction and rental assistance programs

___

PDF: Where do permit fees go?

At the same time, combating homelessness has become a greater challenge for local governments, prompting responses that have ranged from relaxed rules for camping overnight in vehicles to development of a tiny home village on vacant county land in Santa Rosa.

On the campaign trail, candidates have thrown out other ideas, including creation of tent villages scattered across the county on government land and private property as temporary shelter, and use of vacant county-owned buildings as permanent housing.

Carrillo, who has represented the west county since 2009, said housing concerns among 5th District residents are now as critical as the condition of county roads.

“Housing affordability is right up there with roads and potholes this year — those are the two main problems I hear about,” Carrillo said. “It’s clear people are being pinched from the housing crisis, and it has become a wedge issue.”

Evans and Hopkins have split key endorsements among experts in the housing field.

David Grabill, a longtime housing rights attorney and activist, has endorsed Evans.

“She’s experienced, knowledgeable and energetic and she’s pissed off the powers-at-be in real estate for a long time,” Grabill said. “She sticks to her guns. That’s critically important right now because with our severe housing shortage, increasing affordability is not going to be easy.”

John Lowry, the former Burbank Housing executive director — Sonoma County’s largest developer of low-income housing — is backing Hopkins.

“These are very complex issues, and I think Lynda understands all the factors that are needed to actually provide more in the way of affordable housing,” said Lowry, who is advising Hopkins on housing policy. “I think she’s a very pragmatic thinker and has intellectual curiosity that will help us identify solutions.”

Candidates’ strategies

Evans’ strategy involves strengthening county rules requiring developers to build affordable units or pay fees to support the construction of such units elsewhere.

Evans strongly favors the former option and would do away with the latter one, in essence requiring developers to carve out at least 15 percent of the units in new construction projects as affordable for low- and very-low income people. “My proposal is something that developers and their allies hate because building affordable housing is not where the profit is,” Evans said.

“But look at where business-as-usual has gotten us.”

Hopkins said, however, that fees developers are allowed to pay instead of integrating affordable units in new building can assist low-income housing developers like Burbank Housing finance new projects. The idea, Hopkins said, is to “leverage public-private partnerships to secure funding for affordable housing,” combining affordable housing fees and tax credits with grant funds and nonprofit dollars.

“Diverse development where you have different socioeconomic groups all living together is really great, but also with in-lieu fees, you can actually make those dollars go further by leveraging other state and federal funding and tax credits,” Hopkins said.

Hopkins wants to lower permit fees for developers seeking to build apartments. At present, fees are charged on a per-unit basis, ranging from $20,000 for a granny unit, to $85,000 for a 3,000 square-foot single family home. The fees help offset impacts on services such as parks, schools and roads.

Permit fees for a 2,000-square-foot house with a garage and a public sewer and water hookup, for example, cost $64,000, according to the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department.

The county’s Water Agency gets a third of the money, while the county’s Community Development Commission, which administers county housing and homelessness programs, gets under a quarter.

Eleven percent helps fund roads and infrastructure through the Transportation and Public Works Department, 10 percent goes to local schools, 6 percent to Sonoma County Regional Parks, 3 percent funds Fire and Emergency Services, and PRMD gets 15 percent of the permit fees.

Evans said she believes such impact fees need to remain in place, with exceptions for purely affordable housing projects.

“The problem with cutting permit fees is it costs the community to maintain roads and streetlights and it costs money to pay for public safety and schools,” she said. “We shouldn’t cut fees for the fun of it.”

Hopkins said she would alter the fee structure from a per-unit to a per-square-foot charge — helping lower costs for smaller units and affordable housing units.

“Think of it like a McMansion tax,” she said. “It would be more expensive to build larger dwellings. We need to change the current regressive fee structure.”
 Lynch and Sergent also are in favor of cutting permit fees for developers.

Curbing evictions

Measures to curb skyrocketing rents and stem unwarranted evictions also are gaining traction on the campaign trail.

Evans favors rent control and tenant protection laws that would prevent landlords from evicting tenants without just cause. The Santa Rosa City Council in May voted in favor of drawing up such rules, endorsing a cap on rent increases for older apartments at 3 percent annually.

“These are very important protections, but Realtors have threatened to overturn it,” Evans said. “Unfortunately, landlords have been evicting tenants so they can raise the rents. We need new affordable housing, but we also need to protect what little affordable housing we currently have.”

Evans has support and financial backing from labor unions, including Service Employees International Union Local 1021. SEIU is in favor of rent control and has backed Santa Rosa’s proposal.

Hopkins said she is in favor of just-cause eviction policies and rent control in the county, but only if Santa Rosa enacts an ordinance placing such laws on the books.

“I think we need a uniform policy,” Hopkins said.

The Board of Supervisors, which has jurisdiction outside city limits, is expected to discuss tenant protection policies this summer.

Lynch and Sergent do not support rent control, while Chase said she does.

Among the field, Hopkins has drawn the largest support from developers and business interests.

Her campaign has received nearly $12,000 from California Real Estate political action committee — the political fundraising arm of the California Association of Realtors, as well as the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce and the North Coast Builders Exchange, a construction trade group. Most of the groups have taken a stand against rent control policies.

Hopkins said she has formed her own opinions on rent control and just-cause eviction policies, arguing that her policy positions are not directly tied to those who are supporting her campaign.

“As supervisor, I believe it’s tremendously important to go in and vote your values — what you believe in,” Hopkins said. “That’s exactly my plan if I’m elected.”

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

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