Healdsburg enlists former Army captain to help boost affordable housing units, reduce homelessness
As Stephen Sotomayor races from one workday commitment to the next, he tries to recall his military training, and a mentor’s words about how haste and getting caught up in the heat of a moment can lead to flawed decisions.
Healdsburg’s new housing administrator traded in his Army uniform more than a decade ago for civilian work clothes — a light gray suit with a crisp blue, open-collared shirt on a midweek morning last week. But the guidance offered years ago by a commanding general just before Sotomayor’s deployment to Iraq with the 1st Armored Division remains with him today.
“He told his junior officers, ‘Do not rush into failure. You’re going to be in a time where there’s a lot of pressure coming on you,’ ” Sotomayor said, recalling the advice of Gen. Martin Dempsey, who went on to become a four-star general and later served four years as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Obama. “You’ve got to filter out the noise and look at the heart of the issue. To take a step back and make sure you get there.”
In Iraq, Sotomayor, who left the Army as a captain, served a 15-month tour in the early days of Saddam Hussein’s overthrow.
Now 40, the Los Angeles County native is digging into his demanding job as Healdsburg’s housing chief, responsible for preserving the Wine Country city’s dwindling number of available affordable units and building more for its current and future workforce.
Aside from the military, he brings to the post past experience in the public and private sectors, including housing positions that took him to Fresno and back to Los Angeles, managing larger budgets and developing policies around the challenge of homelessness.
His new job is in a much smaller city, in a one-man department. But it comes with great expectations.
In recent years, skyrocketing rents and vacancy rates hovering near zero have sucked up much of Sonoma County’s most affordable housing. Home prices for many families remain out of reach. In Healdsburg, where the median household income is about $63,000, the median home sale price is the highest in the county at $804,000, according to the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.
In more than a few instances, landlords also seeking to cash in on the market have moved to retrofit investment properties, displacing current tenants from their below-market units and hiking rents beyond what they can afford. In the past four years, two high-profile cases involved largely Latino families losing their longtime housing and housing advocates turning out in droves to demand the Healdsburg City Council act on their behalf.
Also, by voter approval in 2000, new housing construction in the city has been limited to 30 market-rate homes each year in Healdsburg, home to about 12,000 people. Affordable units are exempt from the growth restriction, and the passage of a ballot measure in 2018 could help loosen it even further, by allowing another 50 more apartments a year, targeting families of four making an annual income of up to $134,000.
Still, city officials and low-income housing advocates worry the housing gap could push out workers who act as the backbone of Healdsburg’s main economic drivers — tourism and the wine industry. If not addressed in an expedited manner, the shortage stands to thin out the rest of the workforce, affecting school enrollment and other civic mainstays.